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Social media writer and speaker Shel Israel was in the UK recently promoting his new book, Twitterville, and speaking at the Social Media Summit.

I talked to Shel about how businesses, large and small, are using Twitter...

Why did you decide on the title Twitterville?

My point with the name is that it allows people to behave more like they do in real life than anything else. We find people with common interests, and it has a rhythm to it which is a little retro, a reminder of the times when we knew everyone in our street.

It also enables communication that was previously not possible, whether personal or business, and allows us to converse with people all over the world, helping to make the world smaller.

We've heard the success stories of brands like Zappos and Dell on Twitter, but which lesser known examples have you covered in the book?

One example is a restaurant laundry service, which is based in Oklahoma, in the middle of nowhere.

They began using Twitter by putting up local baseball scores, and then starting using it with other tools. They produced nine videos on the best ways to fold napkins, and this turned them into a thought leader on this particular subject, since businesses that didn't have time to train staff on this could just put them in front of a computer screen and learn the techniques from these videos.

Twitter became even more useful to them when there was an ice storm and the highways were closed. The only way they could inform the customers who wouldn't get their laundry delivered was through Twitter, since there was no time to call each customer in turn.

Some of restaurants expecting deliveries saw this message and replied with alternative routes, so thanks to Twitter, they were able to keep their customers happy.

Another great example is a bakery in Shoreditch, the Albion, which is using Twitter to promote itself. As the food comes out of the oven they Tweet about it.

This Twitter account now has 1600+ followers, and you only need one or two in each office around the area to tell everyone that fresh croissants are coming out of the oven, and you can get drive a lot of custom to the shop this way.

They've now starting putting pictures on Twitter, of freshly baked muffins and cakes to make the offer more tempting. One picture of chocolate chip cookies has 621 views, so you can see how useful it is as a tool to inform customers and drive them into the shop.

The Coffee Groundz in Houston, Texas was doing well until Starbucks opened nearby. At one point the manager tried Twitter, but not much happened until a Twitter user called @maslowbeer, who was driving and late for work, requested a burrito, and could he pick it up in the parking lot.

Other people followed this example, though he had to change it to direct messages only when orders began to be placed and not picked up. After this, he had a request from a local group planning a Tweet-up to use his place at night. This brought 150 people in, which was great since he had just started serving food and alcohol on evenings.

This had two effects: people started coming in and then became regular customers and the Coffee Groundz became known as a great place for meetings. (You can see the Twitter case study here)  

How should businesses be using Twitter?

When the telephone was still new, a New York Times editorial asked what business manager in their right mind would allow employees to talk on the telephone, as they might give away company secrets.

Whenever a new tool comes in, there are people who are horrified about the possible implications.

Twitter is a communications tool, just like the telephone, so use it to do your job, it's another way of communicating with customers. Why would a company that trusts its employees not allow them to use Twitter?

Comcast, for example, gains nothing in terms of dollars from using Twitter, it costs as much to talk to customers on Twitter as on the phone, but the big difference is that other people are watching.

Only people with bad experiences tend to talk about it. Now people see Comcast more positively, but they consistently had among the top ten worst reputations for customer satisfaction in surveys.

This wasn't helped by a YouTube video taken by a customer. She had called out a Comcast engineer to her house, left home for 30 minutes, then went in the room to find him asleep on the couch. You can even hear him snoring in the video. This got 2½m views on YouTube, and did little to help Comcast's reputation.

Comcast then started with a team on ten people answering queries and talking to customers on Twitter, and this has helped to restore the company's reputation.

Twitter is a fantastic river of news and opinion on what is out there, what's good and bad about products, what's happening in the industry. It goes on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and is absolutely free of charge and great for companies to keep their fingers on the pulse.

Does Twitter make it easier for companies to show a human face to customers?

Social media came along, and not long after, the global economy went into the toilet. Every company just kept cutting, and marketing and PR budgets were a major victim of this.

Now we've hit a point where every business in the world is saying that they need to interface with customers, so they turned to social media as a more efficient and effective way to do this.

This can reveal companies as a series of real human beings, not some corporate monolith. Sometimes they will fail on Twitter, but they can admit mistakes and 'slap themselves on the forehead', and this can make them seem more accessible. The interesting thing is that people become more polite when they know that a company is listening to them.

Should brands be cautious when joining conversations on Twitter?

I think its like when you're at a party, and a few people are talking to each other, at some point a new person will inject themselves into the conversation and say something that adds to the conversation.

The other scenario is that something can join the conversation and say 'Hi, I'm Bill, and I sell real estate...' and start trying to sell to you.

This is not the right approach, and like normal conversation, brands need to engage in some chit chat first, rather than just trying to sell straight away.

How do you see Twitter developing in future?

A glib answer to this would be that I have a lifetime record of being wrong in every forecast I make.

In recent years, a new warehouse of interactive tools has been developed. These are virtual worlds, but the human interaction and the business conducted within is very real.

Social media has been very disruptive with every organisation, though things are starting to settle down now. Eventually, these new tools are injected into existing systems and become a part of them, just as other technologies have been in the past.

Whether on Twitter, or some follow-on product, the hunger for people to use these tools won't go, and the principles of this kind of communication will be around for ever.

People are using social media as a communications tool, whatever companies do, and businesses that go where customers are and watch, listen and learn and interact can prosper.

Graham Charlton

Published 30 November, 2009 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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Jeff Molander

Jeff Molander, CEO at Molander & Associates Inc.

Once again, Twittermania strikes and sets aside logic. The utility that Twitter is providing in these examples is marginal at best and relies on statements like this:

The only way they could inform the customers who wouldn't get their laundry delivered was through Twitter, since there was no time to call each customer in turn.

No time to call your customers? Really? Also, what about e-mail? What about a blog? Is Twitter that unique?

... thanks to Twitter, they were able to keep their customers happy.

Is Twitter a new customer service tool that deserves our time, energy and financial investment — or is its success a warning of something more serious?

Specifically, are Twitter’s legitimate customer service wins (ie. Soutwest Airlines and Comcast) symptomatic of customer service FAILURES in traditional (strategically more important) channels? While I admit Twitter delivers customer service value the answer to the more strategic question is, unfortunately, yes. Why isn't this getting airtime? Could part of that identification process already be underway? Perhaps not at Southwest Airlines but certainly elsewhere like Comcast!

Likewise the constant "humanizing" benefit is not so much a benefit of Twitter as it is a FAILURE of every other communications device marketers have come up with. It presumes marketers have, for years now, not wanted to have a "human looking" company... sillyness!

This Twitter account now has 1600+ followers, and you only need one or two in each office around the area to tell everyone that fresh croissants are coming out of the oven, and you can get drive a lot of custom to the shop this way.

They've now starting putting pictures on Twitter, of freshly baked muffins and cakes to make the offer more tempting. One picture of chocolate chip cookies has 621 views, so you can see how useful it is as a tool to inform customers and drive them into the shop.

This is novelty. This is not qualitative value -- this discussion of 16,000 Followers is quantitative novelty. I, personally, use Twitter to generate leads and close business. I'm not impressed with follower count or views. Nor should any of you.

This economy demands we extract qualitative value from social media -- not quantitative novelty (also known as traditional advertising).

Shel, I respect you and your work. Congrats on the book. I know that you know the difference between qualitative value and quantitative novelty. I just think we should expect more of social media.  Thanks for considering my thoughts.

almost 7 years ago

Peter McCormack

Peter McCormack, Founder at McCormack Morrison

I have to agree with Jeff, there appears to be no logic with Twitter. How can a dry cleaning business rely on everyone receiving the Tweet, I only follow a few people on Twitter and I can't keep up with all the new messages.

It is typical of our industry with people constantly pushing the newest fad whilst there is little evidence of ROI apart from the same examples.

almost 7 years ago

Jeff Molander

Jeff Molander, CEO at Molander & Associates Inc.

What do you think, Peter:

With every additional person you follow on Twitter the average ‘attention value per followed person’ decreases.

This is simple math.  The number of Twitter followers is not a score — it’s a statistic.   It’s like ‘minutes used on your phone plan’ or ‘number of claimed dependents.’  Why would a marketer treat it as a score — a measure of social media success?  It measures nothing qualitative?  Isn't the big opportunity on the Web all about the qualitative aspects of interaction?  (not broadcasting which is what most Tweeting is about)

We must stop getting excited about how many followers we’ve managed to corral with such little effort… and stop believing there is value in ‘follower count’.  When we do we'll start to see the world in a way that we can extract MORE value from Twitter.

I can't keep up with all the new messages.

SPOT ON!

We tend to believe, “not only are these followers essentially voting for us they’re LISTENING to brand messages.  By golly this is great!  They’re not tuning out, they’re tuning in!”  But here’s the problem. Most people that follow Tweeters MISS what they’re saying — they’re not listening!

True.  Why?  Due to the volume of tweets and no real time monitoring device. Hey, Mr. Marketer... your Twitter followers are nearly worthless because they’re not following, nor loyal. It's all make believe.

I’ll prove it.  Think about how your company’s followers actually use Twitter.  How you use it. 

* The average follower does not use any real-time tweet monitoring device (they’re not HEARING tweets)

* It’s easy to follow — yet SERIOUS work to un-follow (they look interested but they’re not)

Can you, personally, relate to the above as a Twitter follower?  I can… and I only follow a couple dozen people and use multiple real-time monitoring tools!

Most people that follow brands don’t have serious interest in what they are saying.  Their interest is mostly drive-by.  Would love to hear someone argue against this and learn from them.

almost 7 years ago

Peter McCormack

Peter McCormack, Founder at McCormack Morrison

It reminds me of the ultimate death of MySpace...In its early days people would make friends with anyone and in the end had no real connection with these people and cared little, where Facebook rocked is that it is about you and your friends. Twitter is like MySpace with people not caring who they connect with because they believe the more people they follow the more that will follow them.

almost 7 years ago

Peter McCormack

Peter McCormack, Founder at McCormack Morrison

And speaking of Facebook, the more it tries to copy Twitter the more people will defect.

almost 7 years ago

Jeff Molander

Jeff Molander, CEO at Molander & Associates Inc.

But here's where I'm wrong: Today, Facebook makes most of its money "the old fashioned way." By selling quantity to people who still value it -- ad executives who buy banner ads. But what about tomorrow? Actually, they're getting into direct response -- they're just not telling anyone about it. After the Burger King "Whopper Sacrifice" debacle they started to open their eyes to direct response.

almost 7 years ago

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