Firms hiring Twitter czars to push into social networks

August 29, 2009

More than 300,000 people attended the Indy 500 this year, and 4.4 million more watched it on TV. But 3,000 others had a front-row seat without even seeing the race.

They followed it on Twitter.

As part of his job as communications manager for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Paul Kelly sent live updates—one every 1.7 minutes to be exact—during the hour-and-55-minute-long race. From lead changes to record pit-stop times, Kelly “tweeted” race highlights from his laptop to make sure the few thousand followers of @IndyTalk, IMS’ Twitter ID, were engaged at every moment.

Such is the life of a professional tweeter who spends hours each day engaging fans through 140-character updates, or “tweets,” which are displayed on a user’s profile page and are also delivered to followers who have subscribed to the user’s feed.

Twitter was originally used as a casual way to communicate between friends, but now companies and professional organizations, including several in Indianapolis, are applying the free tool to the business world. And they’re enjoying big gains as a result.

Take the case of Kelly, who suggested to his boss in 2007 that IMS start using Twitter, just one year after the site launched. His boss brushed it off, but returned to the idea a year later when “Twitter” became more of a buzzword, and the site’s user base had grown 1,841 percent.

“Twitter is something I knew a lot of people in the racing world weren’t doing yet,” he said. “So using it early on positions us as being ahead of the curve, even though our organization is 100 years old. I know NASCAR is already using us as an example of how social media can be done right in racing.”

What exactly does Twitter accomplish for business? For the IMS, it’s about customer service and interacting with people who follow the brand.

For example, during the weeks leading up to the Indy 500, Kelly answered every request about which gates would be open at the track, the expected weather forecast and traffic patterns. And his regular posts drive traffic to the IMS Web site by linking to news, video and other information considered vital by race fans.

While other businesses have more measurable results from their Twitter page—such as Dell’s @DellOutlet account, which has generated $1 million in revenue through tweeting discount codes to followers—any type of presence can be effective for companies, according to Michael Reynolds, CEO of SpinWeb Internet Media Inc., an Indianapolis Web design and marketing firm. As long as they’re committed to two-way communication.

“Twitter is not meant to be a one-way street; that’s a sure way to get tuned out,” said Reynolds, who teaches a seminar called Twitter for Business. “It should be a balance of promoting people in your network, talking to clients, sharing news about your industry and, yes, your own products and promotions.”

Reynolds also favors authenticity and transparency, which means companies that view Twitter as a way to disseminate PR spin are unlikely to succeed in using it. Being authentic means having a C-level executive or other seasoned employee manage the company’s account—not a marketing agency or outsider.

That means tweeting will become part of someone’s job description, and increasingly this is becoming a job on its own. Twitter is listed in the job description at another firm: local ParaPRO LLC.

The Carmel pharmaceutical startup recently posted a position for a social media specialist, whose sole job would be to manage the firm’s social media efforts, including running a Twitter page. ParaPRO expects to launch a lice-killing product within the next year, and is trying to connect with school nurses, doctors and moms. The firm plans to generate chatter about the product, while listening to the needs of its customers (or followers) at least a year ahead of launch.

Why didn’t the firm use a marketer?

“Since we’re a small company, we don’t have the luxury of throwing money around, so we decided someone with that amount of responsibility should be in-house,” Roland Bydlon, director of marketing, said.

With so much riding on its social media campaign, ParaPRO will closely monitor the return on investment from its Twitter usage. Several Web sites such as bit.ly and Tweetburner provide free “tweet tracking,” a service that measures the reach of a user’s tweets such as charting the number of click-throughs and the location they came from, as well as monitoring “re-tweets,” or updates that have been shared by followers.

But nothing matters more to Twitter ROI than choosing the right person to tweet. Reynolds tells companies to select a good writer and networker, regardless of age.

“Good tweeters are people who are simply good at networking—they’re willing to ask questions and exchange business cards. Social media is merely an extension of referral-based relationships,” Reynolds said.

He also suggests someone who is careful with his or her words, but much more personable than a spokesperson—and knows the difference between personal and professional tweeting.

This came naturally to Ross Graham, a creative manager for the Eli Lilly Federal Credit Union who tweets as @elfcu. Graham manages an unrelated personal Twitter account but also tweets as the credit union, delivering money-saving tips to followers and acting as a problem solver for their technical issues.

Twitter has helped the credit union by working as an extension of its customer service, Graham said. He does not cross-tweet (that is, show any link between the two Twitter accounts) and followers don’t know his real name. To them, he’s just the helpful guy behind @elfcu.

Kelly feels the same way about IMS’ Twitter page. As a sort of Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, he isn’t opposed to sharing his identity, but his name isn’t listed on @IndyTalk’s profile page because it’s irrelevant to the IMS brand.

Anyway, he has bigger things to worry about. Like how to maintain and grow @IndyTalk’s following after the Red Bull Indianapolis GP closes out the IMS season Aug. 30.

Kelly will continue promoting ticket sales and tweet racing trivia, but also plans to offer more Twitter-exclusive discounts to the online store and maybe even to break news through the feed.

He views the off season as a time to listen to followers. Because, come May 2010, at the rate Twitter is growing, tens of thousands will be back to watch—no, read—the Indy 500.•


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