Brands Need to Tread Lightly With Twitter’s New DM Feature

Experts say it's great for customer service, not self-promotion

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Twitter began opening up direct messaging today so users can send each other private notes even if they don't follow each other.

The social network has long required a user to follow your account before you could send a DM, which helps prevent unwanted outreach but can also make it difficult for businesses to easily communicate with customers.

Today's opt-in policy tweak seems like an intriguing opportunity that could just as easily turn into a huge frustration if businesses take it too far. Companies will not want to be accused of spamming consumers on Twitter—a situation that could quickly spiral out of control with retweeted backlash and negative replies. With black-hat practitioners probably already attempting to figure out how to use spam-bots through the new feature, legitimate players will have to tread lightly.

"Brands DM'ing people on Twitter unsolicited could turn into some major hating," said Eric Bader, RadiumOne CMO. "It has to be in the context of an ongoing conversation, or it's going to get annoying or even creepy to get unexpectedly messaged by a brand."

Michael Kelly, senior media manager at the American Licorice Company, creator of Red Vines, added, "It will be important for brands to respect consumer privacy with this new feature as the DM inbox is much more personal space than the main feed, and communications strategies using direct DM should be crafted accordingly."

To receive messages from anybody and everybody, Twitter users will first have to go into their settings and then enable the feature, which is off by default. If they choose to open up the DM channel to all messaging, they can block specific accounts after getting notes they do not appreciate. There is also an "end conversation" function to halt any unwanted back-and-forth. 

At the same time, Azita Ardakani, CEO of Lovesocial, thinks the move is a risky one for Twitter, which she notes is a publicly traded company that needs to keep investors as happy as possible. If this shift is a move towarded targeted direct-message advertising, Ardakani said, it's likely to backfire.

"With every IPO, it's always only a matter of time before every avenue is evaluated as a revenue channel," she said. "DM is a sacred space, and disingenuous advertising or promotion in that space will quickly repel users from checking that forum for legitimate communication."

But San Francisco-based Twitter has tested the concept for weeks and must feel comfortable with what the data revealed in terms of users' reactions to unexpected messages.

"For marketers, we have to resist the temptation to look at this as a new communication channel to use willy-nilly," said Noah Mallin, head of social for MEC North America. "Instead, we have to look at the ease it gives us to take a public conversation private—for customer services or fulfillment or for any sensitive communication. The move also cements the idea that our true audience isn't necessarily who follows us on Twitter or Facebook, etc.—rather it's who comes in contact with our content."

Kevin Purcer, ‎svp of director of digital and social media at Erwin Penland, said, "Think about all the LinkedIn spam you get from people you don't know—this is what it could be like for consumers if brands don't have some discipline. On the flip side, it makes it even easier for consumers to reach out to brands via social so if consumers adopt this behavior, social customer support teams will need to adjust for an increase in DM communications."

Therein lies a potential challenge of dealing with consumers randomly pinging companies via Twitter, explained Dan Swartz, svp of digital marketing, media and analytics at Upshot Agency.

"Brands must expand Twitter private messaging into a continuing infrastructure of social platforms [that] they need to actively manage in order to seamlessly connect with consumers," Swartz said. "If a brand decides not to activate their private DM functionality, it sends a bad signal to consumers that they are not interested in what they have to say."

Lastly, Purcer said Twitter's DM development points to a larger trend in digital consumption.

"Overall, this is just another sign that the messaging space is still ripe for evolution," he said. "From Snapchat to Slack—the use cases are growing and adapting every day. Marketers need to think about how to leverage the opportunity for one-to-one communication across all these types of platforms."

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.