Microblogging Goes to Work

Many companies have begun using Twitter, the microblogging service, to send people brief messages and communicate with customers about new products or how to improve their services.

The pool of users to communicate with is increasing. Twitter doesn't release numbers since it's a private company, but Compete, a web analytics company, estimates that Twitter saw at least 2.5 million unique visitors in August, up 12 percent from July, and a five-fold increase over a year ago.

Because a Twitter message (known as a Tweet) must be sent in 140 characters or less, you need to get to the point of your message quickly and it must be succinct. Most of all, according to Laura Fitton (who goes by the Twitter handle @pistachio and who runs a consultancy that helps companies utilize microblogging), you need to be interesting.

"Don't be boring and don't be selfish," she says. "More than other platforms, people want to hear what you're saying, but it still needs to be engaging."

And by selfish, she means don't act like an annoying product pusher. Here, we take a look at four ways companies and their employees are using Twitter to engage customers and what kind of messages they're trading with them to draw them to their products..

1. (Careful) Product Pushing

As a company, you should avoid being blatantly self-promotional on Twitter, Fitton says. Because people are choosing to subscribe to your site, however, she says you can assume they'll expect (and want) some discussion and updates about your products. But the key is to have some voice or commentary in your tweets to go along side product information.

Messages targeting customer problems and needs are more useful than blatant advertising pitches.

JetBlue (@JetBlue) has been especially effective at striking this tone. Here is an example of one of their latest tweets:

"JetBlue has landed on eBay. We wanted to try something different. We're auctioning off some great packages on eBay http://jetblue.com/ebay/."

Kodak, which has a chief blogger (@kodakCB), wrote about how her company's product was being used rather than giving blatant product pitch:

"Spent the weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival. Saw some great movies shot on Kodak film!"

The messages suggest this lesson: Avoid marketing speak and be up front and honest. JetBlue and Kodak's tone is informative, sometimes nonchalant, and less pushy than, say, "Come check out all our great deals on eBay!" or "Go buy our newest film!"

2. Community Outreach

One way companies can be successful is by thinking about the communities that they serve, both online and offline.

After Hurricane Gustav hit, Whole Foods (@wholefoods), the grocery store chain, kept people in the loop regarding their stores in the areas affected. One example:

"Louisiana update: Baton Rouge store open 10a-6p til further notice; we're working on getting New Orleans stores open & will keep you posted."

Popeyes Chicken (@PopeyesChicken), a fast food chain, was also keeping its followers updated and reminded them to evacuate the area:

Closed all the Popeyes in southern Louisiana so there is no need to stay. Please evacuate and BE SAFE! I'll be here when you return!

Short, sweet, and helpful.

3. How-To and Service Questions

Some companies such as Comcast (@comcastcares) have begun assigning an employee to take customer questions over Twitter. This level of communication allows for a level of intimacy absent from corporate websites that offer FAQ sections of their site.

Pandora Radio, the free service that provides users with customized radio stations and offers them options to buy music over Amazon or iTunes, has been especially effective. They have a community manager named Lucia that runs the Twitter handle @Pandora_Radio.

Here's an example of a Pandora user who had a question regarding using the "Thumbs Up" feature on Pandora (on the service, when you like a song, you click on a thumbs up button that tells Pandora to play more songs like that one).

@MattDionee: played Jack Johnson on my Foo Fighters station. I want to thumbs up it because I like it but it does not fit the station.

Response from Pandora:

@MattDionne Yeah, thumbs it down if it doesn't fit the station. That feedback won't affect your other stations, don't worry. :) Lucia

4. Humanizing the Head Honcho

CEOs (with some exceptions) have generally been lousy bloggers because they aren't good at it or they don't have time, Fitton says. Now, with microblogging tools like Twitter that integrate with their mobile phones, there is a better opportunity for them to communicate with employees and customers, she says.

BusinessWeek did a slideshow about CEOs on Twitter. It included Sun's CEO, Jonathan Schwartz (@SunCEOBlog), and Tony Hsieh ( @zappos), Zappos.com's chief executive. The latter has been especially effective at humanizing himself to his Twitter audience, which Fitton says pays dividends in building social capital.

Hsieh's tweets don't always center around Zappos.com, the online retailer. Instead, they give you a glimpse into his day-to-day life:

Haircut @ Great Clips, I wanted sideburns removed. Shocked, they asked if I was sure abt getting rid of my manhood. I said yes. Manhood gone. Just saw a coyote (or fox?) 2 blocks from my house. I got out of my car to say hi, but it ran away. I hope it wasn't looking for @el_gato All of my SF friends twittering about 4.2 earthquake, 1st tweet at 9:01 PM. No way I would have found out about it so quickly w/o twitter

Evidence this style of Twittering is working to build awareness of his public persona? Hsiesh has one of the largest followings for a chief executive. As of the time this story went live, he had 11,267. He in fact follows even more people than that himself: 13,105.

So when he does mention something about his own products, it should be more palatable because he has built "social capital" - that is, he's posted enough interesting messages to warrant a following and a discussion about his products.

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