In-Depth

Excuses to Tweet at Work

Even companies without a clear strategy for using micro-blogging to their advantage must monitor the ongoing "naked conversation" for complaining customers.

They're all "twittering" to their hearts' content on Twitter, a micro-blogging service that lets users send 140 character messages and is growing like wildfire. comScore Inc. estimates that in one month, from March to April of this year, visitors to Twitter jumped an astounding 83 percent to hit nearly 17 million users.

For celebrities, micro-blogging is an obvious way to garner attention and let their adoring fans know exactly what they're doing.

For partner businesses, which don't have fans as much as they have customers, employees and industry experts, things are a little different.

"A company has to step back and think, what is it trying to get out of Twitter?" says Reed Overfelt, CEO of OptimizedNow LLC, a social media marketing firm based near Washington D.C. "Everyone hears Oprah say we should [Twitter], but [many companies] have no idea what it is they're trying to do with it."

The Power of Micro-Blogging
So what can a business do with Twitter-or any micro-blogging service? The potential for wasting time is obvious. (It's hard to justify how reading "Tweets" that debate the merits of Batman versus Superman will contribute to a company's bottom line.) But the 13,911 businesses listed on Twibs, a business directory service for Twitter, must indicate that there's more here than just a way to hear what Ashton Kutcher is doing now.

What might be less apparent are the ways in which those 140 characters-and the applications that have emerged to support the service-can be cleverly used both externally and internally to alert customers to sales, reinforce a company's brand, burnish its image, create a community of experts and a network that can be called upon and even encourage innovation.

The key is in how Twitter is used. Gil Yehuda, an Enterprise 2.0 expert and former Forrester Research Inc. analyst, explains micro-blogging at its best this way: If blogging is like writing on a piece of paper, micro-blogging is like writing on a Post-it note. The difference is not in the size, but in the intent: A piece of paper is the story, a Post-it note is used to indicate or alert the reader to the story. "It's all about message sharing," says Yehuda. "It's not about the message itself."

Businesses like Starbucks Corp. and Zappos.com Inc. are using this concept of message sharing on Twitter to improve and publicize their customer service. By using Tweetbeep, a Twitter alert system that sends hourly updates by e-mail, businesses have an employee, or employees, "listen" to what customers are saying about them. Overfelt describes how Comcast Corp. used the alert system to contact a customer who complained on Twitter about the service. The customer happened to be a blogger with a fairly large following, and after the Comcast employee discovered the nature of his complaint and then solved his problem, the blogger blogged about the "new Comcast" and its much-improved customer service.

"This one little thing did more for their marketing than any commercial," says Overfelt.

It's not just the large enterprises that are monitoring their brands on Twitter. Overfelt was looking for a set of analytics tools for his firm and he tweeted about it at 12:15 p.m. At 12:17 p.m., he received two messages from the CEOs of companies that provide these services asking Overfelt to talk about what each of them had to offer. Overfelt says he ultimately went with one of those services.

"These brands are listening in on their customers," says Yehuda, who notes that social-media monitoring services like DNA 13, Radian 6 and SM2 not only send regular e-mail updates to their users, but also can provide some analysis-including negative or positive mentions.

Some companies monitor their competitors' mentions as well. Overfelt says he's seen it done: Whenever anyone Twitters about a competitive product and they mention that they're dissatisfied, the competitor contacts them and asks if they can help.

"This is a massive global voice of your customers, and my advice is you need to listen to it. If you're smart, you'll respond to it," says Overfelt.

Building a Community
It's the critical mass of users on Twitter combined with the viral nature of its service that do prove to be incredibly effective-but only if used well. For instance, this past December, Dell Inc. said it generated $1 million in revenue in the preceding year and a half through sales alerts on Twitter. Those customers who follow Dell on Twitter receive alerts when the company's outlet store had discounted products available. The alerts could be clicked on to purchase the product or-here's the critical mass at work-forwarded on. Dell increased the value to its Twitter followers by offering them exclusive discounts.

If a business wants to be effective, the value of the Tweet is key. "There are a variety of sales alerts, but if they're offering 5 percent off something the user will say, 'don't bother me.' It has to be valuable, otherwise people will vote with their feet and unfollow you," says Darren Bibby, a program director in IDC's Software Business Solutions Group. "It's really about building a community, so you have to offer something of value to that community. If the community is [made up of] deal seekers, [Tweet] when you have free monitors."

The community-building nature of Twitter and all micro-blogging services allows many companies to seek to engender loyalty by increasing followers' connection to their brand. "People have an affinity to Whole Foods. They like being connected to it and [Twitter] allows them to stay in touch," says Bibby, who recommends that corporate users on Twitter have personalities and a person's name attached to their ID.

Providing subject-matter expertise is another way for a company to become part of a professional community and build brand awareness for its organization. This, says Jeremy Epstein, marketing navigator at Never Stop Marketing in Washington, D.C., is the future of advertising. "Traditional advertising is time consuming, expensive and ineffective," says Epstein. "There are like six billion channels-you can't box people in anymore. How can you possibly say everyone is watching Seinfeld? Nobody watches the same shows anymore. [Twitter] is an opportunity to learn stuff and then build a network. They'll start spreading the word. These are free testimonials that people will pass along," he adds.

The 'Naked Conversation'
This, of course, is also a form of communication over which a company has very little control. Many companies are already used to this concept, thanks to company blogs, but micro-blogging brings the "naked conversation"-as Overfelt terms it-to a whole new level.

Epstein points to Microsoft's early adoption of blogging as an effective tool that shifted the public's perception of the Redmond giant as an "evil empire." In fact, Epstein says he had a blog when he worked at Microsoft and the policy was simple: "Blog smart." His recommendation for companies who want to control their micro-bloggers: "Tweet smart."

"This is a massive global voice of your customers, and my advice is you need to listen to it. If you're smart, you'll respond to it."

Reed Overfelt, Founder and CEO, OptimizedNow LLC

"The naked conversation isn't controllable," says Overfelt. "This is one of the hardest things companies will face: that they can no longer control the message."

Overfelt suggests that companies have a set of guidelines: Not a 12-page usage policy, but rather a directive instructing employees not to divulge confidential information. "A lot of companies just shut [Twitter] off," he says. "Many CIOs just want Twitter off their network. It's a big mistake not to pay attention to these things." He adds, "Can you imagine a company shutting off all Twitter feeds and their competitors are seeing them and responding to them? They can do serious damage. And think about the lost sales opportunities."

Overfelt's advice? "A company needs to listen in [on Twitter], understand who's influencing their channels [and] their customers, and build a program around that."

Of course, as Epstein acknowledges, there will be instances when micro-blogging will result in someone saying something that shouldn't be said-but he agrees that the alternative of shunning social media is much worse.

"Bad things will happen," says Epstein. "The key is to recognize that it will happen and do your best to defuse the situation. You are a billion times better off being a valued participant in social media. Don't go back to the cocoon. There's risk in everything and the benefits here outweigh these risks."

Countless Benefits
For Epstein, cost-effective lead generation is one of the main benefits of micro-blogging. He has a perfect example: He was quoted in an article in The New York Times on helping friends find jobs during a recession. Then two weeks later, Guy Kawasaki, a tech guru and managing director at Garage Technology Ventures LLC, tweeted about Epstein's white paper on Twitter. Both leads drove similar amounts of traffic to Epstein's site.

"One guy had the same impact as The New York Times," he says. "That's what's so incredible about this era."

So what if the program manager in your company, Epstein adds, micro-blogs about something amazing that's happening there and it flies through his network of professionals? "You can't pay for that kind of attention," he says. "He's a trusted member of the community. They listen to him when he says, 'Dude, you must download this latest platform.'"

Having easy, quick access to expert advice-or having access to people who know where to go for the expert advice-is another one of micro-blogging's big benefits. Bibby follows some Microsoft partners on Twitter, and he notes that when one person, for instance, will Tweet, "What are you using for Partner Relationship Management," he'll get about a dozen responses.

"Social media is a dinner party," says Epstein. "You can sit and listen to what your colleagues are talking about."

The key is to be a trusted member, and that can take a little time. "Users need to recognize that it's a conversation and a community," says Overfelt. "You don't walk into a room and start shouting. You walk in and quietly join a conversation."

While Twitter has the critical mass in terms of user numbers, some of the smaller micro-blogging services like Plurk or Jaiku can work for users in niche communities. "If you're an expert in something specific and other experts use this service, that's critical mass for you," says Epstein.

Yehuda agrees. "If you want to listen in on customers you'll go to Twitter. If you want to connect with people or with messages, you'll use Twitter. But if you want a community that's on [a smaller micro-blogging service], you'll use those."

Companies are also starting to implement internal micro-blogging services to connect employees and share ideas. Bibby says that IDC started using the most popular of those services, Yammer, about six months ago and "it's grown like wildfire. It has 400 members [at IDC]. It gives me new ways of thinking I never would have come up with."

According to Overfelt, a potential loss in productivity is nothing compared to the potential ability of a company to mine and capture innovation with these kinds of services. "How do you mine great ideas in companies? Use the wisdom of the crowds," he says.

An online employee idea board is conceptually similar, but makes adoption even easier to achieve because of the simplicity of posting and the ability to just hit a button to indicate approval or disapproval of an idea. According to Overfelt, they're equally as effective as a service like Yammer for innovation mining. He points to Dell's idea board, Ideastorm.com, which is accessible to both employees and customers and has generated more than 11,000 suggestions so far. "Its two latest laptops are a result-almost entirely-of ideas captured on this idea board," Overfelt explains.

It's hard to imagine a more effective use of a micro-blogging tool. Between exchanging ideas, capturing them and then, of course, promoting the implementation of those ideas, micro-blogging seems to be proving its worth.

As Overfelt says: "You can't control the naked conversation. The only thing you can do is participate."

Most   Popular