Baseball scouts rating talent are vainly searching for the "five-tool player" -- a player like Willie Mays or Ken Griffey Jr. who's great at fielding, throwing, base running, hitting for average and hitting for power. There aren't many.
Social technologies, like baseball players, typically only do one or two things well. Except for the flexibility of online communities, we haven't had a "five-tool player" that marketers can tap in highly versatile ways. But now we do. It's Twitter. And now that it's reached about 5 million accounts, it's time to pay attention.
In reviewing corporate Twitter applications (see report "Using Twitter For Groundswell Objectives") we found five main ways companies can use Twitter. (If you've read "Groundswell," you'll recognize the five-objectives framework.) With Twitter you can:
Monitor what people are saying about your brand right now. Try it: Go to search.twitter.com and type in "Swiffer." As I write this @d33ann is bragging about how she tidied her apartment and @adtothebone suggests they should rebrand it for men as the "dusterminator." Try it with your own brand. Locked in those tweets are sentiment, volume and insight about your brand, your competitors, and your category.
Talk to people.
Just get a Twitter account for your company and start twittering. You'll get more followers if you offer something useful. For example, Dell has sold more than a million dollars worth of overstock computers through its @DellOutlet Twitter feed, which has 137,000 followers.
Energize your brand advocates.
Zappos has a page that shows who's tweeting about it. Unlike Skittles, this isn't a stunt; Zappos is engaged with its customers on Twitter and they're responding. Do you know who loves your brand?
Support your customers. Comcast is digging itself out from under a poor service reputation one customer at a time; @comcastcares will respond if you tweet about challenges with your Comcast service and will solve your problem in 140 characters or refer you to people who can help.
Embrace customer feedback.
H&R block asks its Twitter followers about potential product upgrades, for example.
Twitter users love it, and now companies are learning to love it, too. Of course, we're all wondering if it can make any money for itself. It's as if Derek Jeter had delighted fans and the Steinbrenners with his five tools but didn't get paid for it!
Where's the Twitter business model? Search. David Berkowitz noted right here on DigitalNext that Twitter is now putting a search box on the Twitter home page. Joe Marchese, president of SocialVibe, suggested to me in a conversation at the AAAAs that Twitter search is about to get sophisticated enough to base a business model on. John Battelle, Michael Arrington, the San Jose Mercury News and Ad Age have all noticed that Twitter search is worth watching.
I think Twitter will improve its search analytics and turn them into a paid service. (Twitter search will still be free, but super-duper analytical Twitter search will have a charge.) Furthermore, ads on Twitter searches would be more relevant, easier to sell, and more easily tolerated than ads on Twitter itself. So look for Twitter to sell ads on its search page.
After all, a five-tool player this good deserves a paycheck.
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Josh Bernoff is the co-author of "Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies," a comprehensive analysis of corporate strategy for dealing with social technologies like blogs, social networks and wikis, and is a VP-principal analyst at Forrester Research. He blogs at blogs.forrester.com/groundswell.