Twitter is rapidly becoming one of the most popular social networking sites, with more than 44 million users, according to market research firm comScore. While some of these users have been attracted by the chance to keep up to date with the day-to-day goings on of celebrity users such as Stephen Fry, Lance Armstrong or Jonathon Ross, many people have flocked to Twitter to network with their peers, chat about industry issues and hire people, writes John Cunningham (TwitterID: @johnpc), director of business markets at ntl: Telewest Business.
More than one in five users (21.7 per cent) now use Twitter primarily for work purposes, according to recent research carried out by the Conference Board and TNS, which reflects the growing trend for people using the website for more professional purposes. This has given Twitter a more mature level of interaction than users might have experienced a year ago
As famously asserted by 15-year-old Matthew Robson in his report for Morgan Stanley, Twitter is not for the younger generation, who are more likely to be found on Facebook. Its more straightforward design has lent itself to attracting a more grown-up demographic.
According to Ofcom's Communications Market Report 2009 the site has attracted an influx of senior level professionals aged 35-54. The chance to connect with this audience has prompted many companies to start tweeting and even develop guidelines for Twitter usage. While there have been several high profile success stories, there have also been some well publicised gaffes, which have demonstrated how companies can get Twitter wrong.
Typing that first tweet
If you are considering how your company can use Twitter then your first step should be to listen to what is being said about you and your market. It is vital that you understand the tone of the conversations being had by your customers and peers before you type your first tweet, or you risk alienating this online community before you have a chance to become a part of it.
Not all of these conversations will be positive, but rather than ignoring negative tweets you should view them as a prime opportunity to engage. Asking how a problem can be resolved is a much more effective strategy for improving customer relations than simply avoiding the issue.
This type of interaction can often turn a disgruntled customer into a brand advocate when they see such a proactive and personal response to their problem. However, this type of interaction on Twitter should not be viewed as an opportunity to do customer service on the cheap. Twitter should be viewed as another channel for your business to engage and communicate with its customers in a way that most suits their needs.
Although Twitter can be used effectively as a channel to engage and connect with prospective customers, using the site for blatant promotion of your product or service is frowned upon. By pushing out marketing content and not engaging with users, you may find that few users choose to follow your account, and some may even block you.
A bird's eye view
Twitter is fast becoming a good indication of how your business is viewed by its customers and prospects, allowing you to see what people actually think. Whilst Twitter is still not a complete representation of the whole of your customer base, it provides a complimentary vehicle for viewing feedback on your brand in real time - good or bad.
There are numerous free desktop applications, such as Tweetdeck, that allow you to observe the conversations that are taking place about particular keywords. This makes Twitter an invaluable resource for spotting trends and responding to them with help and advice, which can give your company a more human face.
One brand that has been quick to recognise the effectiveness of using Twitter as a customer service tool is JetBlue Airways. Having spotted that customers were tweeting about their travel problems the airline started using the social network to help resolve customer problems, make company announcements, and promote offers. Twitter's real-time search capability means that JetBlue's customer service staff can proactively monitor the site for mentions of JetBlue in relation to late flights and poor service. If employees encounter complaints, they can take immediate action and quickly tweet back to ask how the problem can be resolved.
Whilst this may be a B2C example, the same opportunities exist for companies operating in the B2B market. For example, if someone asked their followers about their experience of purchasing software or corporate networks it is a golden opportunity for a business in this sector to offer help.
Twitter is proving to be a useful tool for engaging with customers and this aspect of its use will undoubtedly continue to grow. Twitter can allow you to communicate with your customers on a more personal level, which can help make them feel like more than just a statistic to your business and offers you the ability to humanise your brand, engage more effectively and increase loyalty to your business.