When Twitter first started gaining steam, many probably scoffed at the idea of exchanging brief, 140-character messages, or "tweets," with others. But with 6 million (and counting) users, the social media application is beginning to prove its marketing value.
Twitter is essentially an instant messenger made public -- the 140-character messages, or "tweets," can be seen by everyone, and the conversations are always free-flowing. While consumers use the service to blab about how badly they want a pizza or to arrange weekend plans, they also use it to discuss your business, brand, or product -- and they'll continue to do so, whether you participate or not.
But don't just start firing off marketing missives to the Twitter community. If you actually want to leverage Twitter as a marketing tool, you'll need a plan, and you'll need to stick with it for the long haul. Here's what you need to keep in mind before you start to tweet.
It's not a campaign
Social media is not merely a flash in the pan; and regardless of whether or not Twitter becomes the next great marketing application, a similar service will still be popular years from now. If you want to jump into Twitter -- or any form social media -- be prepared to invest a great amount of time. You can't merely spend one week talking to consumers and then vanish.
Before diving in, you'll need a plan, including figuring out what you want to accomplish, and why you are joining the conversation in the first place. When you log onto Twitter, you're asked "What are you doing?" But when marketing via Twitter, the most important question to keep in mind is, "What are you thinking?" according to Rodney Rumford, CEO of Gravitational Media.
"I share information that is unique and valuable to my followers," Rumford said, speaking at the Gravity Summit in Los Angeles. "Think about your target, your audience, and how you can give them information."
Listen, don't push
When you focus on providing value to your followers -- whether they're current clients or prospective ones -- it's important to remember Twitter isn't a push marketing tool. Don't beat your clients over the head with offers or use Twitter merely as a promotional tool. Instead, engage in real conversations.
Rumford equates Twitter to a river, and just like how a fisherman would set up multiple nets in the river, you'll need to set up multiple filters to listen in on the conversations that are already happening. Search.twitter.com lets you find out who is discussing your brand, product, business, and competitors. After you listen in, join the conversation with insightful commentary. "Be a fly on the wall, listen, and add value when appropriate," Rumford said. "There are great nuggets in this river, and you're panning for gold."
Twitter isn't merely for big brands either. By listening and joining existing conversations, small businesses gain equal footing with the big corporations, and can even take a bit out of some of their biggest competitors.
It's more than customer service
Brands like Zappos, Comcast, and Sprint get great press for using Twitter to join consumer conversations and assuage customer crises. Consumers are also more likely to leave with a positive experience when they know they're talking to a real human being -- not just a brand, but a face and a name. But customer service shouldn't be the only reason you use Twitter. "Customer service is low-hanging fruit," Rumford said. "Every brand should already be using it for that."
When planning out your Twitter strategy, consider creating multiple accounts to communicate with different audiences. Think about the issues you'll want to address with these accounts, and how each can add value for both your business and clients. The Kogi Korean BBG Taco Truck, a Los Angeles-based small business, uses its Twitter page to announce where it will set up next, and draws hundreds of people everywhere it goes. Services like Splitweet and TweetGrid let you manage multiple accounts.
Every tweet counts
Everything on Twitter is public, which means consumers can view your stream of messages regardless of whether or not they follow you, or even have a registered Twitter account. Therefore, every message you write counts. While Twitter offers the ability to protect your tweets from outside viewers, don't do it. "That defeats the purpose," Rumford said. "The whole point is to be social."
In that regard, you'll also want to treat every voice as an equal. Answer every message you can, whether that consumer has 5,000 followers or just five. "When you answer someone who is less influential, it shows you're willing to interact with everyone, so it's really good for business," Rumford said.
Because Twitter facilitates free-flowing conversation, it's inevitable that you'll attract brand detractors. In the fish bowl that is Twitter, these hecklers provide the perfect opportunity to show your true colors. Discuss their issues and turn that person into a satisfied customer, and possibly a brand evangelist. And remember, it's all public. "When I'm having these conversations, I'm being judged by everyone that follows them, and they're seeing how I interact with my business prospects and clients," Rumford said. "Be aware of that."
Rich Cherecwich is associate editor, iMedia Connection.