Twitter is not yet completely mainstream, but several mainstream companies are using the service to communicate with customers and potential customers. Some use it to advertise products, while others use Twitter to field customer complaints.
I looked at how several companies are using Twitter, and have a few guidelines that brand managers can apply to make the nanoblog service work for them. It appears that there are some actions that companies simply must engage in if they want to take advantage of Twitter as a marketing service.
Starbucks: It's about the people
Companies are not people. Consumers, for the most part, have a hard time relating to an amorphous, inanimate entity like a corporate brand. But Twitter can change that by giving a company a human face that can speak to customers and change perception.
@Starbucks' Twitter strategy is worth looking at. Starbucks doesn't inundate Twitter followers with advertisements. Instead, its Twitter account gives consumers the opportunity to access the company in a way they never have.
When a user corresponds with a corporate account on Twitter, they may not really expect it, but will be happy to see that there's a person on the other end. I have sent messages to the Starbucks' profile, which, as it happens, is run by an employee of the company. The responses have thoughtful, forthright, and most importantly, human -- it doesn't stink of marketing rhetoric.
From a consumer's perspective, that's ideal. How often can we really get in touch with corporate people in the position to make a difference? In my experience, telephoning customer service usually yields nothing more than banalities and scripted responses. But a Twitter profile can allow me to talk to a person at the company, creating a scenario where I develop a dialogue between myself and the organization. And it changes my perception, and makes me feel heard. Starbucks does this very well.
Comcast: We care, and we'll prove it.
Giving a company a human face through Twitter is great, but it can't stop there. The representative who's assigned to the Twitter profile can't be an intern or someone who has no power at the company. Instead, the representative must have the power to address issues and make sure that a user who believes they're being treated unfairly can have their issues handled swiftly.
@ComcastCares does an outstanding job of not only empowering the individual behind its Twitter profile, but ensures that the Twitter profile is used to fully address major issues the company has faced in the past.
According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, Comcast led every company in the U.S. in customer dissatisfaction in 2004 and 2007. Comcast's Twitter experiment is a small part of the solution.
Based on the research I've performed across Twitter Search and other third-party Twitter tools, @ComcastCares is achieving its goal of improving customer relations. The instances of users complaining about Comcast is declining, and the complaints are becoming minor.
If you look at the @ComcastCares page, you'll find the main reason for that success: the Director of Digital Care, Frank Eliason, is individually fielding questions and concerns from customers and asking them to send him more information, their phone numbers, or account information so he can address them swiftly. He's using his power at the company as well as his forum on Twitter to help customers. Without that power, he would be just as useless as Comcast's customer service number.
Zappos: Be part of the community
The Twitter community has certain expectations. Although companies are using Twitter to promote their brand, they should be aware that they're not above those ad-hoc rules. If they follow them like any other user, it'll only help them achieve their goal of improving brand opinion.
@Zappos is one of the companies that actually understands what it means to be a part of the community. Its Twitter activity goes beyond discussions about shoes and answering user questions. A simple search of @Zappos on Twitter Search reveals something that shouldn't be overlooked: by engaging the community and providing entertaining and worthwhile content outside of its business, @Zappos appeals to users even when they're not thinking about Zappos. Perhaps the best proof of that can be seen in its current follower count: 206,553 as of this writing.
Providing value to the community should be part of any company's plan when they go to Twitter. If we want ads, we can go to a company's website, so don't waste our time. Instead, use the blueprint provided by @Zappos, which is dominated by use of Twitpic, insider information about what's going on in the CEO's day, and more. It goes back to putting a face on the organization and it makes people actually care about what's being said.
And that's a key factor companies can't overlook: As consumers, we usually don't care about issues others face with companies until we have them ourselves. Answers to other customer concerns are often only important to that affected individual, and are ignored by the rest. But by providing more tweets about topics outside of customer complaints and advertisements, we start to actually listen to a company. Zappos proves that almost every day: it entertains with interesting tweets. It mentions sales every now and then, too. And I don't think I've missed a Zappos sales alert yet.