Digital A-List 2009

Who Says Everything Has to Be Monetized?

Marketers Use 'Communication Machine' Twitter to Engage Consumers With Their Human Side

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Illustration: Pete McDonnell

NEW YORK ( -- There's no end to the number of angles the Twitter story offers: the massive ecosystem of third-party apps the microblogging site has spawned, the ability to create breaking-news reporters out of ordinary citizens and, perhaps biggest of all, the still-absent revenue model.

But monetization plan or not, the biggest story for marketers is the popularity Twitter has already amassed among a handful of pioneering brands that are using it for everything from promotional vehicle to customer-service platform to media-relations tool.

JetBlue, for example, views Twitter as a virtual "information booth," said Morgan Johnston, manager of corporate communications. "The ability to engage directly with our customer humanizes the brand, creating a deeper level of engagement with our customers that fosters loyalty." JetBlue has 203,935 followers.

Comcast uses it as a quasi helpline, listening for Twitter users who have an issue with the company and then reaching out to see how it can help. In doing so, its Twitter evangelist, Frank Eliason, has started to markedly shift the poor customer-service perceptions that the company has battled for years.

Slam dunk
The National Basketball Association provides its 140,000 followers, amassed in just two months, with up-to-the-minute news and updates.

"We can communicate with fans as things change in a game if someone is about to go off for 50 points and what channel it's on," said Dan Opallo, director of marketing at the NBA. "It gives the NBA fan a look behind the curtain and a brand new experience that I don't think they had until this point."

Two years ago almost no one knew about Twitter. Today John Mayer, Shaquille O'Neal and ABC News' George Stephanopoulos are among the 6 million people with Twitter profiles.

The concept is simple: Users sign up for an account, collect followers and build out their own network of Twitterers worth following. When a person "tweets" a message, all of his followers instantly receive it on their phones or computers. Those followers can choose to forward -- or "retweet" -- the message, and so on, and so on.

What is it that might make people want to follow a brand on Twitter? A quick poll of the Twitterverse uncovered a variety of reasons, including recipe ideas (@TraderJoes) promotional deals (@tastidlite) or fare alerts (@virginamerica). As with any social media, brands would be wise to ask themselves what they have to offer that Twitter users might want. Even something as simple as making them laugh can help put a human face on a brand, as @Popeyeschicken manages to do with groan-worthy tweets such as "Chickonomics: Obama wanted to include Popeye's in the stimulus package, but the senators wouldn't pass the chicken. Pork is another story."

Multi-purpose tool
For Southwest Airlines, which launched its Twitter profile in July of 2007, the tool has become, in the words of the airline's lead Twitterer, Christi Day, a multipurpose communication machine. She uses it for media relations, customer service, relationship building and to promote specials and deals. "It has evolved into what our followers want, a place to get news and promotions," said Ms. Day, whose official title is emerging media specialist. "And it helps us keep tabs on what our customers want and are saying, in real time."


Twitter's log-in page is just the beginning. Many users Tweet through third-party apps.

Ms. Day recently used Twitter to promote the airline's testing on in-flight WiFi on four of its planes. She now alerts followers as to where those four planes are being routed on any particular day. Ms. Day said the airline is talking about providing special offers to Twitter followers only, but has yet to make a decision on it.

As it's grown, Twitter has had issues scaling. If last year was about the stability of Twitter (outages were common), this year the microblogging service has started to feel other strains on its popularity, particularly when the system gets a stress test, as it seems to each year in Austin, during the South by Southwest Interactive festival.

So, is it time to call the top, or double-down on Twitter? One marketing guru, who was one of the few to actually start using Twitter, is going with the former approach. Once, Twitter's top 10 was a who's who of geek royalty; now, Edelman Digital Senior-VP Steve Rubel noted, the list looks like an issue of US Magazine.

It's leading him and other Web 2.0 junkies to wonder, "What's the next Twitter?" Facebook, with its redesign, is becoming more Twitter-like; some 10% of Twitter messages don't come from Twitter at all, but from another "built on Twitter" start-up, TweetDeck, according to analytics firm TwitStat. What's worse, some of the digital tastemakers that made Twitter are starting to move on.

"Historically, as the geeks go, so goes social media," Mr. Rubel blogged, as SXSWi wrapped for another year. "I believe that the founding fathers and mothers of Twitter -- people who gave the service its wings, will soon tire of it and seek the next shiny object."

Or as some would assert, that means it's just about ripe for the mainstream.

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Contributing: Michael Bush, Abbey Klaassen


Biz Stone
Use new communications tools to show your human side, as many a brand has learned to do on Twitter.

"Seeing people helping each other during a fuel shortage in Atlanta, sharing news from inside the Taj hotel in Mumbai or raising $250,000 for Charity:water in one night has taught me that Twitter is not about the triumph of technology, it's about the triumph of humanity," said co-founder Biz Stone.

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