Whether you use Twitter to keep up with friends, market your brand or complain about another brand’s lousy service, the point is: You’re on it. And so are more than105 million other people, according to the Huffington Post. The good news is that brands are actually starting to get this whole “social media thing.” They’re finally allowing employees (if begrudgingly) to tweet and hang out on Facebook during office hours. It’s not that the boss has finally decided to introduce leisure time at work, of course. The hope is that employees plugged into social media outlets will lend the brand’s page or profile a real-world feel, a sense of coolness.
Some brands have actually pulled it off, too. Others, not so much. But there’s a lot you can learn from both.
Twitter has become a new frontier for frustrated customers who don’t want to go through the drag of calling an 800 number and getting lost in the phone-tree forest. Because Twitter is so immediate and public, many brands are polishing their social media skills to meet the needs of wired users.
Dell is one such brand. After noticing that customers with product issues were reaching out for help to the many Dell employees already on Twitter, the company decided to invest resources in its @DellCares account. Indirectly, the team now reaches between 350,000 and half a million Twitter users each week via retweets, and its resolution rate has climbed to 98 percent. (That’s an impressive turnaround for a company that got famously burned back in 2005 by Jeff Jarvis’ “Dell Hell” blog—a textbook case of what ignoring consumer complaints can mean in the age of social media.)
“We use Twitter in four main ways to connect with our customers,” Dell’s vp of social media and communities Manish Mehta told me. “To inform, sell, engage and support. Our goal is not to replace traditional support methods, but to be there for customers who wish to receive support through the social media channels they’re already on.”
It’s too bad not every company understands how smart using Twitter can be for things like this. United Airlines, it seems, hasn’t quite gotten the formula right. While @UnitedAirlines has more than 115,000 followers, the account appears to do little more than push promotions and respond to comments—the favorable ones.
That didn’t prove all that helpful to Marivic, a fellow publicist, when she had a problem with a flight she’d booked. Desperate for customer service help, she tweeted UA:
I get cancellations (I do, uncle’s a pilot for Continental) but for @UnitedAirlines to repeatedly cancel [my] flight?!?
Marivic’s tweets were to no avail. (She also spent over an hour on the phone with customer service, which never truly resolved her problem either.) Today, she says she’ll never fly United again. As anyone on the brand side knows, responding quickly to consumer complaints is simply Customer Service 101. But it’s clear that many don’t realize that Twitter is now part of that curriculum, a communication channel that should be treated just like an angry caller on the phone.
Not that a brand should view Twitter solely as a channel for conflict resolution. While there are many reasons why people follow brands on Twitter, over a quarter of them say that they do it for fun and entertainment. Savvy brands give it to them, too. Take Zappos.com, for example. The footwear e-tailer has already gotten plenty of kudos for its customer service, but CEO Tony Hsieh (who, by the way, was chosen as one of Brandweek’s Marketers of the Year for 2010) also gets credit for bringing his company’s fun, quirky culture to Twitter—both by encouraging all of his employees to tweet and by being the voice behind @Zappos itself. At press time, Hsieh’s Twitter followers numbered 1,739,951. It goes without saying that all those people don’t follow this executive because he tweets about flats on clearance sale. His tweets are funny (for example: Studies find top 3 most stressful moments in people’s lives: death, divorce and properly pronouncing “Worcestershire sauce.”). Shoppers are smart enough to make the connection between a cool CEO and a cool brand, and Hsieh knows it.
And then there are brands discovering entirely new ways to use Twitter—even if it’s only to help with workaday business issues. Orlando restaurant Ichiban Sushi, for example, was one of the first eateries in the city to accept reservations and to-go orders via Twitter. The move was especially smart for Ichiban, which does much of its business at lunch with office workers downtown—people who are on Twitter anyway and need to save time. In fact, that was only the beginning. A spokesperson for the restaurant related that being on Twitter “allowed us to take orders, crowdsource food ideas and listen to what people were eating in town.” That’s right: marketing research, courtesy of Twitter.
Brands that sit on the sidelines are clearly losing out on an opportunity. The success of a company’s Twitter campaign is all in the effort, but the brands who make that effort can accomplish a lot. I’m willing to bet that in five years the companies that pay close attention to their Twitter streams will be the successful ones. As for the rest? Well, maybe they’ll finally find the time to tweet while they sit in bankruptcy court.
Susan Payton is the president of Egg Marketing & Public Relations. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.