All atwitter

Just when you think you’ve gotten your head around blogging, along comes this whole “microblogging” phenomenon and the popular service that’s fueling the trend, Twitter. It’s impossible to have a casual conversation in any place where technophiles congregate without being pelted by talk about Twitter.

So what is Twitter, and how can it help your online retailing business?

What are you doing right now?

Microblogging is the practice of making frequent, short, unedited, unrefined message posts. Twitter users refer to these as “tweets.” As blogging matures and bloggers take their work more seriously, blog posts have become longer and more burdensome to produce.

Thus was born the microblogging subculture, powered primarily by the Twitter online service ( It’s part blog engine, part social network.

Typical Twitter “posts” tend not to question reality or pontificate on lofty topics such as ethics, religion, or politics, nor do they dare ponder the ironies of the universe. Twitter “bloggers” merely write something quick (140 characters or less) to satisfy one persistent question: What are you doing? That, of course, ignores the recursive trap of meta-twittering — twittering about twittering, but I digress…

When you mention someone in a tweet who has a Twitter account, the protocol is to include his or her username with an @ in front. For example, you might send out an update like “Checking out Twitter at the suggestion of @sspencer.” Then the person mentioned will see your tweet if they are following you.

Conversing via Twitter

Twitter starts with sending out updates, but it doesn’t end there. You can also use the service to engage in conversations with other Twitter users, almost as if using an instant messenger client such as AOL Instant Messenger. Granted, some of it is idle banter, but fascinating discussions can ensue.

For instance, what does that person do when he sees your tweet mentioning him? It’s not unusual for him to respond to your tweet by posting his own tweet publicly as a reply. He could, alternatively, send a response privately by “direct message,” but Twitter users rarely do that.

It’s proper etiquette for Twitter users to limit their discourse so that followers aren’t subjected to a battery of tweets from the same user within a short time period. Not everyone obeys this unspoken rule, and if you come across an offending user, think twice before you follow him or her as you’ll be inundated with their tweets.

Twitter as a business tool

Many businesspeople use Twitter to pass on links to interesting Web pages to their friends or colleagues, to meet or keep in touch with industry contacts, or to promote blog posts. A significant number also use Twitter to engage in dialog with customers/prospects. It takes real skill to use Twitter as a marketing tool — to promote new products, services, content and various other things — without sounding overly commercial and turning off your followers.

In terms of online merchants, is using Twitter to broadcast its deal of the day, when it sells out, and “Woot-offs.” You can see the company’s recent tweets at Although unabashedly commercial, Woot’s tweets serve a useful purpose because Woot aficionados crave immediate updates when a new product goes up on the site.

Electronics merchant Circuit City is using Twitter to inject itself into the conversation, such as a recent incident in which the “circuit_city” Twitter user ( craftily recommended a Panasonic ToughBook to Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang in response to Jeremiah’s tweet about the fragility of notebook computers.

At my urging, Netconcepts’ client and science guy Steve Spangler recently joined Twitter. Steve’s a perfect fit for Twitter: As a toy inventor, TV personality, professional speaker, CEO of a multichannel retailer and science teacher, he leads an interesting life into which Twitter could offer a fun and fascinating window (i.e., what he’s inventing/teaching/thinking/performing).

Every week Steve appears live on Denver’s 9News to do a science experiment that would make for great “Twitter fodder.” So would the more noteworthy events leading up to the appearance, such as “Just bought 100 boxes of baking soda for tomorrow’s science experiment.”

If you do any marketing online, you should have a Twitter account, and as a minimum you should be tracking Twitter conversations that mention your brand by using Twitter’s track feature. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to start sending out your own tweets, too!

Get started with Twitter

The first step to getting started with Twitter is to go to and register. Don’t forget to upload a picture of yourself so your followers can see your likeness.

After that, the rest is up to you. You can track keywords you have a keen interest in, follow people who interest you, or get your friends, coworkers, or employees involved.

Aside from typing directly into the Web interface, there are several other ways to interact with Twitter: via instant message, SMS (text) message, via a Firefox extension like Twitbin, or via standalone Twitter clients such as whirl, Twitterific, Spaz, Snitter, among others.

In addition to getting those incoming tweets pushed out to you via instant messenger or SMS messages to your cell phone, or you can follow Twitter users through RSS using your favorite RSS newsreader.

If you’d like to follow someone, send the command follow username in an IM or via text message. For instance, to follow me, you would send the command “follow sspencer” as a text message or IM. Or click on the “follow” button on a user’s Web page. If you want to track discussions about a keyword, such as the ACCM conference, send the command track accm.

Twitter is great for networking at industry events such as conferences and trade shows. For example, I used Twitter while at the SMX West conference earlier this year to follow the activities of other conference-goers and learn about parties and various other happenings.

Now as a matter of course, whenever I go to a conference I track messages containing the conference name. This helps me stay abreast of the conference’s “backchannel” throughout the day and evening. When I arrive, I send the word “on” to 40404 on my mobile phone, then all the tweets from everyone I follow and from the keywords I track come through on my cell phone.

Like many online services, Twitter can also become a distraction and a time-sink if you actively follow the tweets of a large number of Twitter users. So exercise caution when you start using the follow feature to subscribe to folks’ Twitter streams.

In all, twittering can be a worthwhile activity for online marketers who have useful or interesting things to share in 140 characters or less. Even better if they genuinely wish to engage in a lively dialogue with customers in an open, transparent and hip way.

Stephan Spencer is founder/president of natural search marketing firm Netconcepts.

Zappos takes to Twitter success

One of the e-commerce world’s success stories when it comes to Twitter is The online shoe store known for its dedicated employees, high degree of customer service, and wide selection of products has implemented companywide adoption of Twitter.

Zappos’ top priority is its company culture, says CEO Tony Hsieh. “For Twitter, we don’t really view it as a marketing channel so much as a way to connect on a more personal level — whether it’s with our employees or our existing customers.”

Zappos initially started getting the entire company more involved with Twitter “because we saw it as a great way to help build our company culture,” Hsieh says. “But then we discovered it was also a great way to connect with customers as well.”

You might think that Zappos has a strong set of policies in place to prevent PR disasters caused by employees twittering about company secrets or other sensitive information. It doesn’t.

“We do offer Twitter classes, but those are optional and are more for employees to learn how to sign up for Twitter and use various features and third-party applications,” says Hsieh. “We really don’t give any specific guidelines except to tell them to use their best judgment.”

Is Zappos able to definitively show that its involvement with Twitter results in more sales? “We’re not really looking at short-term ROI in terms of sales,” Hsieh says. “We’re looking to form lifelong relationships with our customers, and we think Twitter helps us do this.”

Zappos has also found that Twitter has been great for recruiting “because people can get a glimpse into what our culture is like just by observing how we interact with each other on Twitter,” Hsieh says.

And while Zappos doesn’t measure Twitter’s effect on sales, the internal camaraderie exposed through Twitter does have a measurable effect on customers. “The customers who are following @zappos on Twitter seem to really enjoy it, because it allows them to interact with us on a much more personal level,” Hsieh says.

Merchants considering Twitter as a business tool need to “be real and use it as a way to connect more deeply with people,” Hsieh advises. “Don’t think of it as a marketing tool you have to leverage.” — SS

Multichannel Merchant is on Twitter!
Who says we don’t practice what we preach?
In late May Multichannel Merchant took the plunge and went on Twitter to provide news updates via the social networking service.

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