Here's a quick quiz: What's the best proof that microblogging service Twitter has jumped from early adopter oddity to mainstream sensation?
A. NBA players—including Shaquille O'Neal—are tweeting from the locker room at halftime;
B. Actress Jennifer Aniston reportedly broke up with singer boyfriend John Mayer due to his Twitter “obsession”;
C. Twittering is fast becoming a go-to tactic for b-to-b marketers;
D. All of the above.
(Yes, it's D.)
That's not to say that Twitter, which lets users post a 140-character update for their “followers,” isn't on the bleeding edge. In fact, much of the b-to-b traffic on Twitter is from marketers talking to each other about how to use Twitter.
But seemingly every day, another b-to-b marketer (or media company) jumps on the bandwagon, using the platform to converse in near real time with customers and prospects. (As of February, there were 7,038,000 Twitter users, an increase of 1,382% from the year before, according to Nielsen NetView.)
These short-hand communiqués are diverse, varying among news alerts, tips, responses to complaints and updates about events (see “Twitter nets interaction,” page 11). But most of the time these marketers aren't writing. They're listening to the endless chatter, attending to what is being said about their products, brands and companies.
“Twitter is another way for us to engage with our customers, it's becoming very critical for us,” said Jeffrey Hayzlett, CMO of Eastman Kodak Co. Hayzlett himself is an active Twitter user (@jeffreyhayzlett), as is his marketing team, including Kodak's b-to-b group (@kodaidigprint).
“What b-to-b marketers, in particular, miss is that these conversations are going on without them. Just type in your company name on Twitter search and you'll be blown away—there are going to be comments about your company and issues being discussed you weren't even aware of.”
While Kodak's use of Twitter started somewhat informally, the marketing team now publishes guidelines and suggestions for Kodak employee Twitterers. And it has started creating and executing marketing campaigns centered on Twitter, such as its contests and prize giveaways at the Academy Awards.
Locating other b-to-b marketers and companies that “tweet” has become easier, too. Ad network Federated Media late last month launched (with Microsoft Corp. as sponsor) ExecTweets.com, an aggregation of executives using Twitter, and the Social Brand Index (www.socialbrandindex.com) offers an index of Twitter accounts organized by category. One also can find lists of b-to-b marketing-focused Twitter users with a Google search.
“B-to-b buyers are still people, and in the end, they buy from people and not companies,” said Jon Miller (@jonmiller2), VP-marketing at b-to-b software vendor Marketo (@marketo), who uses Twitter personally and as part of his company's marketing strategy. “If you can build a relationship with a prospective buyer using Twitter before they are actively looking, you built your brand more effectively than you could with much more expensive options. The trick is to know who to follow and who to focus on for that relationship-building.”
But Miller doesn't think Twitter is the be-all and end-all. “Tweets don't yet show up in Google search results, and links can't influence your SEO rankings,” he said, adding, “I think other tools like blogs still work better as the content publishing mechanism, versus [using Twitter more as] a content promotion tool.”
Technology company EMC uses different Twitter accounts to communicate with a variety of constituencies: @emccorp is for press releases; @emccareers is for job postings; and @emcworld is for promoting its annual customer event. In addition, individual EMC employees use Twitter to talk to customers directly.
“People are people, and people connect with other people,” said Dan Schawbel, EMC's social media specialist (who also recently published a book on personal branding titled “Me 2.0,” Kaplan Publishing, 2009). As Schawbel put it, using a simple social media platform like Twitter can put a human face on a large b-to-b organization, even one such as EMC that sells expensive, complex storage technology. “For those who use Twitter as a way to consume communications, we want to be right there with them,” he said.
Not surprisingly, technology companies like EMC are well represented among early Twitter users. But there have been some surprising early adopters, too.
Take United Linen & Services, a small professional uniform service company in Bartlesville, Okla., which uses Twitter (@unitedlinen) along with a company blog to share information with customers and, in turn, listen to customers.
“Twitter is just another tool we have in our marketing toolbox to create another way for us to communicate with our customers,” said Scott Townsend, United Linen's marketing director. “I am careful to use the word "with' because social media is fantastic for giving us the opportunity to not only send information but, more important, receive information from our customers and employees.”
Townsend offered practical advice for marketers getting started on Twitter.
? In your Twitter bio, clearly spell out what business you are in, who is posting to the account and even what you hope to get out of it. That creates transparency and the underpinnings of trust.
? Find people to follow. They'll likely follow you back, broadening and enriching your conversation.
? To start, sit back and watch conversations unfold. As your comfort level grows, be proactive by participating in and starting conversations related to your business.
? Be generous: Offer more than you get back and always try to be responsive to peers and customers.
“Businesses need to be careful when using social media outlets such as Twitter because they tend to want to start selling stuff now,” Townsend said.
“But Twitter is more about creating and furthering a relationship with a customer, becoming a resource to them and showing yourself [to be] available to provide solutions.”
Because Twitter is still a relatively new technology, chances are that many b-to-b marketers will hear about it first from their marketing agency or public relations partners. For instance, b-to-b agency Slack Barshinger not only uses Twitter itself (@slackbarshinger) but has been aggressive in instructing its clients on how to use Twitter as part of an overall social media strategy.
In general, Twittering should be done by company employees, not their agencies, said Jeff Woelker (@jeffwoelker), Slack Barshinger's senior digital strategist. “We try not to act as the brand voice, as ultimately we feel that our clients are the best representatives of their brand,” Woelker said. “However, there has been the occasion where we speak on behalf of our clients as resource allocation, budget, or time constraints dictate.”
Such an approach may be tempting and get your brand quickly and painlessly in the Twitter game but, ultimately, letting your employees tweet on their own is probably more in keeping with the spirit of the technology.
United Linen's Townsend put it this way: “If you approach Twitter as a cocktail party conversation, ask yourself, "Would I show up to a party, shove business cards in everyone's hand and tell them about my business and why they should buy from me?' Chances are you would not.” Instead, he said, you would arrive, get a view of who is in the room and start making your way around, asking people how they are doing and engaging them in a conversation.
“Some conversations will be very surface conversations and others will go more in-depth,” Townsend said. “Twitter facilitates these conversations and works best for businesses that want to further relationships and listen to what their customers are saying.” M