Questions of business netiquette dissected, debunked and dragged to the recycle bin where they belong...
As the hype around microblogging builds, should your business join the tweet-fest or keep schtum? silicon.com's Natasha Lomas deconstructs this Digital Dilemma.
So you've heard about Twitter. You might even know what the word 'tweet' means. Well done. Your finger is well and truly riding the social media pulse. But here's the rub: should your business join the tweet-fest and set up shop on Twitter? Is microblogging the new marketing?
Twitter, for the benefit of those of you just pretending to know, is a web service that allows its users to broadcast their thoughts, 140 characters at a time. Think of it as an audible stream-of-consciousness broken into bite-size chunks. Or the digested read, digested - and then flung out into the ether for all the world to read (or ignore).
Brevity is the name of the game. The more concise you are, the more pizzazz your message will have. Think haiku, not novel.
But Twitter is more than just staccato monologue - at its best it's a comms tool that lets strangers converse. Tweets can be replied to by other Twits so dialogue is an integral part of Twittering, albeit one with less room for waffle than usual. Being concise has the advantage that your message can be reduced to an essential, functional core.
So much for the preamble. Now for the main: should your business be on Twitter? It's a good question. First up: it may well already be there. If your business is already tweeting and you didn't know about it, this is probably a sign the corporate Twitter feed is sinking without a trace. Which begs the question, why waste time pumping hot air into a vacuum?
Go and check. If the feed has been going for months and the only entities attached to it are spambots and 'Simon who works in IT', it's probably better to bow out quietly now, with your dignity still intact.
Of course many companies - especially established brands in the retail and leisure space - are tweeting: from Starbucks to Sainsbury's, Harrods to Habitat. Tech brands are also 10-a-penny on Twitter, as you might expect. And even the public sector punches above its weight, thanks largely to the self-promoting antics of politicians - those one-man 'enterprises' called MPs.
But some brands are considerably more successful at engaging with the spirit of Twitter than others - this can be crudely measured by looking at the number of 'followers' they have amassed. Step forward Brad at Starbucks in Seattle with 485,000+ followers all lapping up those "freshly brewed tweets". Take a bow dude and collect your Tweeter Of The Month award.
However microblogging does not flow so freely - or whip up such a froth of excitement - in all spheres.
It's not rocking the banking fraternity or the insurance industry, for instance. A quick glance at the Online Customer Experience Presence for Aviva illuminates the latter's difficulties with the medium. 'Tis a thankless task to be forever fielding customer complaints, as Aviva's Twitter feed mistress Becca would surely tell you if she wasn't too busy expressing public empathy on behalf of her employer.
When was the last time a customer wrote to thank their bank or insurer for services rendered? Little wonder (and no oxymoron) then that eSure's Twitter feed is locked to public view. Behind a padlock no one can read your organisation's apologetic tweets - or hear you scream during another customer-service-induced nervous breakdown.
The lesson is: if you'd rather have as few conversations with your customers as possible - ideally outsourcing customer service to some far flung corner of the globe where you can't really hear them bleat - then Twitter is probably not going to be a welcome (or useful) addition to your business.
Likewise if your product/service sucks, going on Twitter will merely open another front in your customer services war.
Don't think you can get away with having some tokenistic presence on Twitter either: the truth that you JUST DON'T CARE will be spray-painted all over your unloved Twitter page like anti-capitalist graffiti. Better to stick to your guns and continue to erect as many walls between yourself and your customers as possible: at least then you can't be accused of hypocrisy.
But what if your company does feel ready for some one-on-one action with customers? What then?
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You need to ask yourself two things: are my customers on board the microblogging bus? And have I got anything interesting to say? If you're very dull, don't despair entirely. Ask yourself if you care, truly care. Being boring in the Twitterverse might not matter so long as you have a bottomless desire to please.
From here your way should be clear: either you've realised your customers are not on Twitter - in which case Twitter is a waste of your precious business time. Or you have realised you have nothing to say to your customers - in which case Twitter is a waste of your precious business time. Or else you have understood the potential horrors of engaging in ongoing conversations with your customers - and fled weeping and wailing back to the corporate fortress where you can't hear them (and they can't disturb you).
Or - you are still reading.
So you really do want to talk, eh? Well then it's not for me to stand in your way. You're tenacious, enthusiastic and ready to duck pretty much any old shoe the great unwashed will throw at you. Congratulations.
To help you get off to a good start in this brave new Twitterverse, here are a few pointers:
Sound like a human. In cyberspace no one knows you're not a robot unless you prove otherwise - by the fleshy warmth of your repartee. Use it.
Have personality. At the risk of ramming this point home, sounding like you have an opinion is A Good Thing - so long as your opinions aren't outlandishly offensive (some Twitter users make a business of being rude, however, so there are no hard and fast rules).
Listen and respond. Twitter is at its finest when conversation is open and free flowing. Be prepared to join the discussion and contribute to the debate, just like the adult you always wanted to be. You never know, your customers might even have a few good ideas for your business.
Get to grips with the lingo. 'RT' means a tweet has been retweeted (rebroadcast - as a sign of appreciation and so others can share it). '@' signifies a reply as it's added to a Twitter user's name when a tweet is directed at them. And so on, so spend a bit of time getting up to speed.
Sound like a robot. This might be RSS with a human face but the emphasis is on human/face so don't just rotate through a list of your latest products. Do you really want your business to come off sounding like a faceless machine?
Treat Twitter as just another pipe to spew out marketing puff. You won't win friends or convince people to become customers this way. The best way to ingratiate yourself to Twits is to be as authentic and honest as possible.
Have your marketing director sign off every tweet. But don't hand the Twitter password to the intern either - as Habitat could warn you.
Be an idiot. There is no shortage of idiocy on the internet - if you're only going to add to it don't bother. It'll be much better for all concerned if you keep your tweets to yourself.
Do you have a digital dilemma keeping you awake at night? Want a few pointers on business netiquette? Help is at hand - email firstname.lastname@example.org and the silicon.com team will scratch their collective heads on your behalf.