Engaging in back-and-forth dialogue and spreading the word about what others are saying are critically important parts of the Twitter ethos. But research in the 2010 Global Social Media Check-up study by consulting firm Burson-Marsteller indicates that too many companies are doing much more talking than listening.
The study found that although 82% of corporate Twitter accounts tweet company news, only 38% actually respond to people’s tweets, and just 32% retweeting the posts of others.
So what’s the best way for merchants to go about tweeting? Here are my 12 steps for avoiding pitfalls and building a successful Twitter program:
1) Reserve a good, relevant user name. With no more than 15 characters to play with and, oh, about 106 million users earlier to the party, your most urgent task is to come up with a short, memorable, recognizable, intuitive Twitter handle, one that is as close to @YourBusiness as you can get.
2) Display a human face for your business. I generally think the handle of your business Twitter account should be the name of your company, although others prefer names such as @Jill_atCompany to humanize the account and allow several people to tweet for a single company, an ideal approach for large firms.
I like the example of @Rubbermaid, “currently tweeted by Jim Deitzel.” You get the face behind the company—the personality of the specific human being doing the tweeting. And if the staff member should, at some point, move on to a different role or a different company, the account can be “currently tweeted” by some new person, without disruption to the brand.
3) Establish your specialty. Your Twitter feed should ride the coattails of a bigger, more passionate lifestyle and social mission, represented by the market you serve. Imagine you’re writing little items for a fascinating lifestyle magazine in your niche. @organic_valley, a Wisconsin cooperative of 1,300 organic family farms, is not just hawking the products made by its farmers; it’s also sounding off on a wide range of topics related to world hunger, nutrition, deforestation, the impact of pesticides, bioengineering, and more.
4) Post frequently. Twitter is voracious. It demands at least daily postings to amount to anything. Keep it brief, don’t overthink it, but feed it. Get into the habit. If you establish a seven-posts a week schedule for Facebook, say, plan to come up with 15 or 20 posts a week for Twitter. If you’ve done a good job of establishing your specialty above, you can simply set up news alerts to be informed of new developments in your market. Summarize them in less than 140 characters and point a link to the article. You should also echo on Twitter every promotional e-mail you send out and every company blog post you make.
5) Use hot-button keywords in your industry. Heavy Twitter users troll through Twitter search results or set up alerts to follow topics of interest to them and the users who post about those topics. Keywords could be the names of high-profile people, news events, companies, or even your industry and market. Whether it’s surfing, fat-free, Google Analytics, knitting, Scottish… whatever your niche, people on Twitter are searching for it daily and will follow you if you’re a regular poster on the subject.
6) Use popular hash tags, and promote your own. A hash tag is a single string of characters or words, prefaced with the # sign, used to make it easier to find all tweets on a given topic or event. On the day of its Indy 500 auto race, the tweeters at Indianapolis Motor Speedway pushed to get #indy500 to the top of the trending topics. Whether your topic or event is global in scope or a niche business conference, giving it an easy-to-remember hash tag is key to helping your audience stay in the loop.
7) Follow. It’s not enough just to post and hope for the best. You’ve got to actively build a network on Twitter, and the best way to have people notice what you’re doing is to take notice of them. Search for members posting on your topics of interest, and follow them. Look at their own followers and select relevant folks to follow. Keep a focused network that aligns with your “elevator pitch” or area of specialty. When you follow people on Twitter, they’ll generally follow you back.
8) Recognize your followers. When people follow you, take a moment to check them out. Some will be blank-slate newbies or evident spam artists you can ignore. But when real people with an interesting stream of tweets follow you, follow them back. Send them a friendly direct message, thanking them for the follow and looking forward to getting to know them. Maybe nothing will come of it—Twitter is the least reciprocal of the social media platforms—but it’s good form, and you never know what will come of these connections.
For instance, Paul Kalemkiarian, owner of the Wine of the Month Club, reached out to one of his Twitter followers who ran a comparison Website; they established a business relationship, and she ended up sending him $100,000 of holiday season business.
9) Promote. Give the Twitter icon prominent real estate on your Website. Display the current feed widget on your home page. Pitch the Twitter feed in your e-mail newsletter, and maybe even your catalog or other print media.
10) Retweet. Be listening for references to your brand, and when people say something nice about you, retweet it. And also send a direct message to thank them. Retweeting the good word is an easy, effective, daily discipline you should get into; it’s a great way to spread any good buzz enjoyed by your brand, and it’s unique to Twitter.
11) Ask for retweets. This can be a little crass, but if handled tongue-in-cheek or for a good cause, it can really spread the word. Examples: Riding a wave of popularity for its Shape-Up fitness shoes, the Skechers shoe brand asked its followers “Retweet if you love your Shape-Ups!” This simple effort resulted in scores of positive, authentic, brand-building tweets, just for the asking.
12) Attend or host a tweet-up. One of the coolest elements of the surge in online social networking is that it hasn’t turned us all into lonely, isolated mouse potatoes. Twitter fans have popularized the tweet-up, an in-person get-together of Twitter users. When the social connection deepens through in-person meeting, you’re really taking the fullest advantage of social media’s rich potential.
Tom Funk is vice president of marketing at Website design/development firm Timberline Interactive.