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Twitter's Corporate Message Wed 18 Feb 09

Using the microblogging service to connect with customers.

Twitter is a microblogging service where people answer the question, "What are you doing?" in a 140 characters or less. It started about four years ago, has experienced phenomenal growth and is now one of the most popular social networking services on the Internet. You can follow other people's postings, or "tweets," as they are called.

Hindenburg_burning I held off using Twitter because, frankly, I just didn't see the point. I had no interest in reading about what TV show someone was watching or what kind of coffee they were drinking. And to be honest I really couldn't imagine anyone being interested in what TV show I was watching.    To paraphrase Herbert Morrison, "Oh, the inanity!"

However, I recently decided to try Twitter anyway (you can follow me at mikeschaffner) and was pleasantly surprised. To be sure, there is a lot of inane conversation going on in the "twittersphere," including the occasional inane commentary of my own. But at the same time, there is also a great deal of genuine discussion and exchange of ideas going on, too. Twitter is like a party with old friends and new acquaintances where the conversations drift between the serious and the trivial, and back again.

Like so many other Internet technologies, Twitter has evolved over its short life. There is a business component to Twitter as well. It doesn't take much searching to see any number of small entrepreneurial companies using Twitter to promote their businesses and to engage with customers. Twitter provides a low-cost, easy way to do this, especially for companies that are targeting the type of people--tech-savvy early adopters--who would use Twitter. You also see a lot of media publications, such as ForbesTech, taking advantage of this new technology as yet another way to connect with its audience.

It is this "easy to connect with your customer" facet that holds the most business promise. A friend had made a comment on Twitter about needing to get some new shoes and I tweeted back, recommending that he try Zappos. A short time later, I get a notification that both the online retailer's CEO and its CGO (Chief Golf Officer, who is also responsible for shipping) had followed my tweet.

There was no hard-sell message, just an opportunity to establish a connection, including offering VIP status to twitterers. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has more than 55,000 people following him on Twitter. Can your company say it has that kind of close connection with its customers?

It isn't just the small companies taking advantage of Twitter. Scott Monty, head of social media at Ford, represents Ford on Twitter and has over 10,000 followers. A number of his tweets will reference Ford in one way or another but most don't. Again there is no hard-sell, and I've yet to see him ask, "What will it take to sell you a car today?" Monty stated in a recent tweet that he isn't on Twitter "to sell. I'm here to engage, inform and learn." It's applying a new technology to the old concept of listening to your customers.

Even if your company isn't ready for Twitter it might be wise to defend your brands with the social media world before the cyber-squatters and hoaxers beat you to it. The most notable example of hoaxing occurred in August 2008 when "Janet" purported to represent ExxonMobil on Twitter, discussing the oil giant's philanthropic efforts and answering questions about the company's policies.

"Janet" was not authorized to speak for ExxonMobil and her Twitter account has since been shut down. It is a shame, however, that ExxonMobil hasn't seized this opportunity to connect with the public now that the concept of microblogging has been so notably demonstrated.

There has been speculation that Twitter would start charging business customers, but the company recently refuted that notion on its blog ""…Twitter will remain free to use by everyone--individuals, companies, celebrities, etc." Because of this, the cost of entry into this new technology is only the time you want to invest in growing and nurturing your connections.

Since Twitter costs nothing to use, what is keeping most big corporations from using it? I think most don't understand it, and it doesn't fit the corporate mold. I can imagine the marketing and PR departments having problems with the spontaneity and personal nature of Twitter. No doubt, they would want to "review" every tweet beforehand to make sure it stays on message and portrays the proper image.

Twitter and traditional marketing/PR just don't mix. It will take some true forward thinking to see the possibilities and to test the boundaries with Twitter in the corporate world.

Twitter represents a new technology and new opportunities for dealing with your customers. You and your company may want to look at these carefully as a way of developing and maintaining good customer relations and a competitive edge. If you don't, there's a good chance your competition will.

What are you doing to take advantage of social media technologies such as Twitter in your marketing efforts? Tell us in the Comments section.

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

"Hindenburg burning" photo from Wikipedia Commons

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