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.