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How Twitter is Teaching Business the Lost Art of Conversation

So it’s happened. Twitter has gone mainstream. As Twitter users, we knew instantly when Mumbai came under terrorist attack. We laughed at the photo of Stephen Fry stuck in an elevator when he tweeted his predicament, we were there when Ashton Kutcher beat CNN to 1 million followers, we caught the first glimpse of passengers being evacuated from the ditched plane on the Hudson River and we all suffered the lag time when Oprah Winfrey sent her first ever tweet on live TV.

Industry pundits and bitter journalists regularly diss Twitter as a time-wasting, “look at me” fad, destined for Forgottensville in 2 years. In fact New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd is quoted as saying to Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone:

“I would rather be tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey poured over me and red ants eat out my eyes than open a Twitter account.”

So is Twitter really just an emergency beacon and “a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls” as Dowd gleefully claims?

Thankfully, no. The latest wave of Twitter users are business executives. They range from home busíness owners, SME’s, middle and upper management, marketing executives, brand evangelists and CEOs. Take a look at ExecuTweets and you’ll see some well-known names with very active Twitter accounts: Richard Branson of Virgin, Lisa Stone Co-founder of BlogHer, Tony Hsieh CEO of Zappos and Steve Case Co-founder of AOL, to name a few.

It’s not just individuals either. Some of the world’s most recognized brands are Twittering. I found a number of super brands on Twitter and asked my followers which of these they were following:

• Amazon 19%
• BestBuy 2%
• Dell 7%
• DunkinDonuts 2%
• Etsy 4%
• Motorola 0%
• Overstock 5%
• Starbucks 12%
• Threadless 16%
• UrbanOutfitters 2%
• WholeFoods 14%
• Zappos 18%

Other major brands with Twitter accounts include:

• JetBlue
• ComCast
• Vodafone
• TheHomeDepot
• H&R Block
• Qantas
• Virgin
• Forrester Research
• Ford
• Samsung
• Kodak

Twitter as a Business Tool

So why would companies be interested in Twitter? Because they know that conversation is a powerful, persuasive business tool and right now, Twitter is where the conversation is happening.

Here are some recent stats about the micro-blogging site from Nielsen:

– Twitter is the fastest growing community site on web
– Twitter experienced 1,382% growth in the 12 months to Feb 09
– The largest user group on Twitter is 35-49 year olds

As the Internet morphs from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0, conversation has quietly ousted content and taken the throne as King. The Web has always enabled businesses to reach new markets. But Twitter allows them to engage directly with customers and potential customers in real time in front of an impressionable public. The opportuníty this provides is unparalleled. As an effective advertising tool, the dusty old Yellow Pages seems positively prehistoric in comparison.

So just how are companies using Twitter as a business tool? To find out, I set up a poll and tweeted the question: “If you represent a business using Twitter, what is your/their *main* reason for doing so?”

The results were quite interesting:

• Branding 7%
• Driving traffic 23%
• Reputation management 7%
• SEO 0%
• Internal communications 0%
• News / product announcements 11%
• Service status updates 2%
• Customer interaction 37%
• Fun 5%
• Other 9%

A couple of things stood out for me here. Firstly, the majority of companies who took this poll are using Twitter primarily to interact with their customers and drive traffic. That’s understandable. But very few are using it for reputation management and none of them are yet using it for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) reasons. It was also interesting to see that a few businesses are using Twitter purely for fun.

Asked why he thinks Twitter is a good fit for business, Overstock’s Social Media Manager Josh Austin says:

“Twitter allows for a personal, real-life brand presence, while fostering better communication, engagement and attention to our customers.”

Customer Interaction on Twitter

So just how do customers interact with businesses on Twitter? I wanted to find out, so I launched another poll:

POLL QUESTION: Have you ever communicated directly with a company using Twitter? What was your main reason for doing so?

• Yes to resolve an issue 25%
• Yes to give positive feedback 18%
• Yes to give negative feedback 6%
• Yes for another reason 16%
• No 35%

It was encouraging to see that 65% of poll respondents have conversed with a company using Twitter. When you consider that nearly half of those people had an issue to resolve with the company they communicated with, the potential for customer loss and retention is lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree. Then there’s the number of respondents giving companies direct feedback via tweets. That’s enough to get any PR Department salivating!

Meg Geddes, a Search Marketing expert and power Twitter user related her recent positive experience with a business on the micro-blogging site:

“At the end of December, there was a special one-day only promotion through Intuit and Staples (an office supply) for buying Quickbooks Pro where you’d get a full rebate. I ordered it and filled in my rebate paperwork but it was illegible and had to be refaxed. The date on the revised paperwork sent by Intuit didn’t match my order date (and I didn’t notice) so my rebate was denied. I was bitching about it on Twitter and within half an hour, someone from Intuit sent me a tweet asking if she could help. I laid it all out for her, and she got it approved; I got my rebate very shortly after that. I was very happy, as I had been expecting to have to sit on the phone for hours with Intuit and/or Staples.”

About The Author
Article by Kalena Jordan who writes a daily Search Engine Advice Column, and is Co-Founder of Search Engine College – an online training institution offering online instructor-led and self-study courses in Search Engine Optimization and other Search Engine Marketing subjects. Follow Kalena on Twitter.