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SURF THIS: Been avoiding Twitter? Time to reconsider

August 3, 2009

“Do you tweet?” More and more—at networking events, cocktail parties and even backyard barbecues—this question is popping up. To the uninitiated, it likely sounds a little strange. But if you’re among them, don’t worry. In a few minutes, you’ll not only understand the question, but you’ll know why the answer for you (and your business) needs to be, “Yes, I do.”

Tweeting is what users of the free online service Twitter (twitter.com) do. Twitter is a social network created in 2006 by Jack Dorsey. The idea started in a day-long brainstorming session in an attempt to break out of a creative slump. The original thought was that an individual could communicate with a small group by sending a short text message. In fact, it’s very similar to text messaging, except that you send your update to everyone who is “following” you. (Think broadcasting on a narrow scale, or narrowcasting.) So instead of sending a text message to just one person, it would automatically be delivered to everyone in your group.

In its purest form, it’s simply a very short blog. Each post is limited to 140 characters (including punctuation and spacing), so they’re necessarily short and sweet. Originally intended to answer the question, “What are you doing?,” Twitter usage has morphed into a wide collective of ongoing conversations, a research tool, a news delivery platform, a social network, and, of course, a marketing tool. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this character limitation has also given rise to an inelegant shorthand that may allow you to cram more content into your 140 characters at the expense of legibility. If not careful, people begin to come off sounding like a 12-year-old with grammatical issues. Still, when used correctly, Twitter can be valuable. Before you lose interest, let me illustrate how it can be useful.

Early in 2008, Comcast Customer Service Manager Frank Eliason decided to begin using Twitter to respond directly to customers. Anyone who had ever tried to contact the company to resolve a problem would immediately understand why this was a.) important, and b.) unheard of. At the time, Comcast had a reputation for poor customer service, and angry customers were considered the norm.

So Frank quietly began reaching out to people, via Twitter, when he found they were complaining about Comcast. The result was dramatic, and fairly immediate: customer satisfaction began rising, and now people began turning to Twitter (and Frank) first to cut through the red tape. With more than 25,000 following Frank’s missives, and with each of his responses posted in a very public forum, he’s single-handedly changing the perception of the Comcast brand and, at times, turning customers into brand evangelists. He recently returned from being out of the office (and away from Twitter) for a day to find that customers were answering questions for him in his absence.

For your business, Twitter may not turn your customers into evangelists, but it might help you connect in real time with them in a way that was previously impossible. For example, the search function allows you to see any posts that are made that reference your company or product. It’s like having instant business intelligence and market research at your fingertips. Since the posts are generally public, you can read and respond to anything that needs your attention.

The conversational nature of Twitter allows you to personify your company or brand, meaning you can address someone’s concerns or questions like a real person, instead of a nameless, faceless organization. The key is authenticity. There’s really no point in blindly “broadcasting” self-aggrandizing tidbits about your company; you’ll find much better results (and customer satisfaction) by getting involved in ongoing conversations and offering valued insight.

Why Twitter and not something like Facebook? Because a large number of Twitter readers do so from their phones and other handheld devices.

These are really the two primary ways to use Twitter—personally and professionally—and both of them require one main ingredient: authenticity. To be truly effective, you need to join the conversation and bring your unique voice. The point isn’t to garner the most followers or have the most updates; the point is to build better relationships. And no one wants to build a relationship with a phony.

So, will you tweet? You might find it’s the fastest, easiest way to have a direct impact on your brand and customer satisfaction.

You can find me at: www.twitter.com/jimcota. And IBJ also offers a wide range of Twitter activity, including IBJNews, IBJHealthcare, IBJDining, IBJArts, and Propertylines. Sign up for any or all to see what you’re missing.•

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Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.

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