Twitter has reached critical mass. Oprah’s recent announcement that she’d joined Twitter, and her near-instantaneous recruitment of over 1,000,000 followers, has signaled a tipping point—tweeting is no longer a pastime exclusively for the technorati and uber-geeks. In fact, it seems like elitist spinsters are the only demographic not to embrace it yet at some level (anticipating protests from Maureen Dowd devotees—no, this is not her actual Twitter account).
Unsurprisingly, the Brits are way ahead of us in terms of Twitter adoption, having been much faster to incorporate mobile phones and SMS into everyday life in the 90′s and early 00′s as well. But the numbers cited by The Telegraph (6,000 new businesses a day on Twitter!) are impressive indeed. Back Stateside, you can be sure that if companies like the online yellow pages are starting to catch Twitter fever, now is the time to catch it yourself.
If you’re a small business owner, more and more of your peers, competitors and (most importantly) customers will create Twitter accounts in the coming weeks and months. In the major cities on the West Coast, there’s a good chance they already have.
Twitiquette. You’ll absolutely want to claim your username, if only to prevent someone else from squatting or even maliciously taking it from you. But just joining doesn’t mean you’ll automatically have success with Twitter.
The Yellow Pages’ recent Twitter article (same as linked above) implies that they do understand how to engage their audience properly on Twitter, as a conversation, requiring dialogue: “people taking turns talking and listening.” To wit, the preposition used in that piece’s title would be more useful as “talk with” rather than “talk to your customers.”
I’ve been on for almost 400 days now. And the single-most important tip I could give for success on Twitter is to listen and converse more than you simply “tweet.” You don’t have to follow or engage in conversation with everyone who follows you, but dialogue, not monologue, is going to be the strategy that pays long-term dividends.
Applying Twitter to your business
There are literally hundreds of small businesses (and large ones, for that matter) already doing amazing, creative things with this new platform. Follow them, listen to them, perhaps even engage them in a little conversation. And then, when you’re comfortable, start promoting your Twitter account in your place of business and dive into a deeper relationship with your customers! Below are just a few ideas to get you started thinking about how your business can use Twitter.
Networking. Twitter is a simply a fabulous way to meet people in your industry, and in your community. Some of my long-time Twitter friends are people whom I have never met, or only just met recently. Aaron, Michael and Kristy, respectively, have been generous with their feedback or recommendations when I have asked them about specific business projects. I already know that in Aaron’s & Michael’s cases we’ll get along famously whenever we actually do meet in person. I don’t doubt that I’ll refer business to all three of them, or receive some in return, somewhere down the road.
And it’s so easy to network on Twitter. Just use their search function to find topics you’re interested in, or people in your general geographic area, and start following them. If you’re actively engaged, you’ll read re-tweets that you find interesting, and you can spread your network even further by following the original tweeter.
Market research & lead generation. You can use search.twitter.com’s advanced features and subscribe to an RSS feed of keywords and locations where you want to eavesdrop. Or take a more direct route. Social Media Marketer Kyle Lacy suggests: “ask your clients and prospective clients what they would like to see, hear, taste, and experience” at your business.
John Jantsch of the excellent blog Duct Tape Marketing even theorizes that if you hone your searches and subscriptions finely enough, or monitor them closely enough, you could pick up actual leads just from listening to others’ conversations.
But Twitter can lead to citations and links for your business indirectly as well. Consider the following real-life example: Blue Lemon Bistro in American Fork, UT has a very active Twitter strategy. One customer who found them via Twitter was so impressed with their restaurant, he blogged about them, linked to their website, included their business name and city in his title tag, and even embedded a Google Map in his blog post! If that’s not a clear indication to Google and Yahoo of a quality experience with a business in American Fork, Utah, I’m not sure what would qualify on that score.
Just as more and more people are getting on Twitter, they’re also starting their own blogs, creating accounts on local/social platforms like Yelp and leaving reviews, and just generally spreading goodwill (or perhaps badwill-it’s a double-edged sword) about your business around the Internet.
Customer service & reputation management. Speaking of badwill, if that’s even a word, Comcast is a company that’s got a lot of that going around. But they’re also one of the great examples of a company using Twitter to improve their customer service offerings. @Comcastcares lets customers (or anyone) get in touch with Comcast on their own schedule, without having to wait on hold or deal with someone who has trouble speaking English. They respond promptly and can usually solve your problem or direct you right to the specific FAQ page on the Comcast website that will answer it.
And don’t be afraid to stroke the egos of your followers. Give props to your favorite customers. Blue Lemon, whom I mentioned earlier, noticed their blogging customer’s review and tweeted it to their 2,000+ followers. Not only does this reinforce the positive experience that the blogger had with Blue Lemon, but it encourages more followers to do the same. You could even take things one step further and encourage followers to leave reviews (with direct, shortened URLs) on their favorite search platforms.
Take orders via twitter. It’s not so far-fetched. Here’s a terrific anecdote from Mr. Tweet about a coffee shop owner who responded in real-time to one of his followers for a to-go order, leading to tons of buzz and a selection as the venue for a Houston area Tweet-up. Wow! Very cool.
Even if you don’t have the resources or desire to tweet in real-time, you can tweet your followers whenever a fresh product arrives in your store or use Twitter for special insider sales or pre-releases.
Fill last-minute inventory. Taking sales one step further, Twitter represents a phenomenal opportunity to fill unused inventory and track sales at the same time. Here’s one example of a San Francisco restaurant who “gets it” via Matt McGee; I saw a similar feature on a San Francisco massage parlor (yes, a real one) in the New York Times as well. In the case of True Massage, they tweet openings in their schedule just a few hours in advance, along with a special tracking code that allows followers to book and save, all at the same time.
Eric Ward and I tweeted back and forth last week about the fantastic opportunity for golf courses to do the same thing with open tee times. Hotels, ski resorts, hair salons, restaurants… any business that relies on walk-in traffic to fill empty slots would do fantastically well with this strategy.
Engage in community activism. Just within the last three months, fellow Portlander (and my friend) Kerry Finsand has gotten over 3,350 people to sign a petition protesting the proposed Oregon beer tax largely using Twitter, and the Northern California Golf Association used Twitter to help raise awareness and defeat a proposed golf tax in their state.
Twitter as an extension of local search
Gib Olander likes to say that “other” is the third-largest local search engine. Right now, Twitter is part of that “other”… but by the end of 2010, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Twitter jump up to #3 or even #2. The ability to search by zip code and radius, the open nature of its API, and its intrinsic social component make it the ideal local recommendation engine, as Sebastian Provencher and Mike Boland pointed out last week. Sebastian is already incorporating Twitter feeds and the like over at Praized Questions.
Even if search.twitter.com isn’t all that popular among the masses as a destination, its results are going to get pulled in more and more places. Yet one more reason you’ll want to be talking about your business and your products or services in the Twittersphere ASAP. Or ideally, develop such a bond with your followers that other people talk about them and recommend them for you.
Remember, as with most forms of social media, you get back only what you put into it. If all you’re doing is tweeting about your own promotions, instead of listening to what your followers are talking about and helping them spread their own messages, you’re probably not going to get very far. You want to converse with people to get them to converse about you in a positive light.
It doesn’t really matter which of these strategies you employ for your own business—if any; blazing your own trail might be the best strategy for your company.
Just do me one favor: ignore Maureen, and follow Oprah instead. At the very least, it’ll be way more fun.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.