Why Bill Gates Should Return Eric Schmidt's Twitter Follow

Brands Can Learn a Lot if They Keep Tabs on Their Rivals' Feeds

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Every now and again I weigh in about how the communities we cover at Ad Age use -- or don't use -- Twitter. I've written a bit about the perils of agencies and marketers not owning their Twitter handles.

But as the majority of marketers make their way on to Twitter and settle into sending out a steady stream of 140-character updates, a bigger question looms: Whom the heck should they follow?

Followers are a main currency on Twitter. Strategies on how and whom to follow vary and, depending on who manages the company's Twitter feed, can be pretty random. But they shouldn't be. I hope people realize that it's not cool to have 1 million followers but follow only a handful in return. It defeats the purpose of Twitter because that handful of followers are likely people you talk to anyway; the point is accessing timely information and thoughts from people you don't see every day.

I use Twitter daily to stay connected with news events and the companies I cover. As such, I make a lot of observations about what brands are doing there.

For one, brands follow people who work for them. The New York Times (@NYTimes) is pretty exclusive on the network; for its impressive 2.5 million followers, the Times follows only 198, consisting mostly of feeds for its own blogs, a smattering of reporters who made the cut and popular columnists such as Thomas Friedman (@NYTimesFriedman), Maureen Dowd (@NYTimesDowd) and the two Franks -- @NYTimesRich and @FrankBruni.

Marketers also love following "tweeps" who have said something nice about them. A good move, as it's important to engage with your fans and use them as advocates. But the smarter brands know it's also worth following the folks who hate them, to monitor what sort of negativity they are spewing out in the Twittersphere and then address their issues. Our head of digital coverage here, Michael Learmonth (@learmonth), mentioned the other day that AT&T began following him after he complained about service (but the telecom later dropped the ball when it didn't respond to his DMs, or direct messages).

Who don't brands or marketers follow? Their competitors. For the most part, marketers seem unwilling to give the competition an added follower for fear it would give rivals some kind of satisfaction, or perhaps publicity. But the mindset that following a rival is taboo can cost companies a wide range of important competitive insights.

For example, how often do your rivals communicate with their customers on Twitter, and what's their tone? What type of personality do they have? What sorts of promotions are they running in their Twitter communities, and what types of crises they are facing?

I know if I were running @ConocoPhillips, I would certainly be following more than the five people it does now; I'd follow every oil and natural gas news reporter covering the BP oil spill since April, BP's official feed and all related ones, such as the one for the Deepwater Horizon Response efforts, @oil_spill_2010.

Tom Hespos, president of Underscore Marketing, a boutique firm that creates and manages digital marketing programs, is someone who is particularly interested in using online tools competitively, and here's his take on the matter: "If you look at a brand's history in terms of what they've tweeted you can usually gather some important information about what their strategy might be."

You can check in on rivals in other ways, such as using Twitter Search and hashtags, and there are tools such as Monitter to help you.

But that doesn't mean you should forgo following the brand feed. While the jury's still out on whether Twitter is useful to brands from a marketing perspective, if nothing else, following a rival is a good way to help you follow their followers -- maybe reach out and say, "Hey, I noticed you liked liked their oven-baked chips, here's a coupon to try ours."

Clothing retailer Express has made its chief marketing officer, Lisa Gavales, the face of its Twitter presence, even putting her handle on the bottom of every store receipt. When I DM'd her asking how she chooses who to follow, this was her DM back: "Hi Rupal, I follow my peers, my competition, industry observers (mags, bloggers, etc), and customers who seem particularly engaged w/ Express." She later elaborated on the competition bit: "I do it for the same reason I read WWD. I always want to know what my competition is doing. How else can I stay ahead of them?"

Go on mega-retailer Target 's Twitter feed, and you can see it follows D-list stars such as Soleil Moon Frye and Donnie Wahlberg but not its biggest competitor, Walmart. Nothing against Punky Brewster and the New Kids, but my guess is Target would learn a lot more from Sam Walton's way of doing business -- and its following list would be a lot less embarrassing.

Mr. Hespos makes a good point about why some marketers remain wary: "If it's a big brand and they are following a direct competitor, I could see how somebody might not want to. ... If Coke were following Pepsi, it could show up on a social news site somewhere, but obviously you need to keep tabs on what your competition is doing," he said. "Another way you might do that is have some of your agency people or individuals in your organization keep tabs on them."

One option if it really bothers your company to show the world that you're following competitors are Twitter Lists, which can be made private.

So all of you out there who aren't willing to click follow on a rival, do it. After all, Google's Eric Schmidt follows 80 people to his more than 100,000 followers, and one of them is his biggest competitor, Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Now if only we could get Gates to follow him back.

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