The value of Twitter, in both monetary and customer number terms, has recently become a little clearer – $10 billion and 175 million are the key numbers, respectively.
However, the value of Twitter to businesses that use it is less tangible. With two-thirds of businesses still not even having websites, and a further three quarters not utilising social media, is Twitter genuinely a lever that start-ups can pull to accelerate growth? Or is it merely window dressing for your core business activities?
Ian Lyons, a leading social media advisor, argues that Twitter forces start-ups to think very differently from traditional selling strategies.
“Fundamentally, it’s a shift from interrupting people to sell them your wares to helping people to buy,” he says.
“No one likes being sold to. Once you can make a shift to thinking about who benefits from your product and service, get to know the customer and get an answer to the key question ‘who would miss us if we were gone’, Twitter is a great tool.”
Perhaps the most striking business benefit to Twitter is its ability to give you a snapshot of your customers. Their appraisal of your business may be scathing, but the feedback can be an invaluable indicator of whether your start-up is on the right path.
“Twitter can data mine information like never before,” says Lyons. “Henry Ford’s famous quote is, ‘If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse’, but what people really wanted was a faster way to get from A to B.’ That could’ve been a car, or a horse or a plane. Henry Ford didn’t have the tools we have now to listen to the market to understand their needs.”
Garnering consumer feedback to ideas or products is just part of it. Play around with Twitter for a short time and the ‘thought leaders’ in each industry or niche becomes clear.
Once you closely follow people in your own niche, you can not only keep tabs with competitors, but become immersed in how your industry operates. You can change your approach and website copy to better represent this niche, as well as boost your SEO and search rankings.
Twitter can feed into CRM systems and helps you reach out to business contacts. Programs such as Gist allow you to see the last five tweets from a potential supplier or partner once you get an email from them. Once you have a better understanding of their interests and opinions via Twitter, you have an instant leg-up in finding common ground.
Twitter can also give you a clue as to where your business sits in the online universe. Lists, where Twitter users group the people they follow, are easily accessible and allows you to see if you’re being placed with your supposed peers.
If you are running an online shoe retailer only to find that you’re grouped with accountants or dog groomers on Twitter, you know you have an online branding problem.
Once you tap into a particular industry, more tangible benefits can follow. Recruitment consultancy Happener has reportedly made $500,000 in job placements through Twitter, merely by searching for people talking about certain issues, the thinking being that it’s harder to fake knowledge and interest about a topic on Twitter than it is on a CV.
Other start-ups take it a step further. Hype Machine, an online radio and music blog aggregator, announced on Twitter that it would launch once 10,000 people viewed the preview page at once. It duly hit its target.
Levelling the playing field
Used in the right way, Twitter can be a great leveller for small businesses. Ross Hill, digital strategist and founder of SME networking group The Hive, says that Twitter can both amplify a start-up’s reach while also underlining its personal touch.
“If a start-up doesn’t want to pretend to be a 1,000-person company, it can be down to earth and approachable,” he says. “You can have that intimate approach that means you know you can get a response from the owner on Twitter. That’s not the case at Telstra.”
“It’s easy to write a Tweet, whereas a newsletter takes time. It has a lightness to it and its reach is huge. You can identify the top people in different communities and you can identify your competition.”
Customer service boost
The potential of Twitter as a customer service tool is gradually shifting the way businesses operate. For example, Pepsi has scaled back its call centre operation in the US due to the popularity of its Twitter account as a channel for customers to make comments or complaints.
On a more local and small scale, Melbourne start-up Crust Pizza is regularly cited as an industry leader, devoting significant resources to responding to unhappy customers via Twitter and launching competitions such as ‘Free Pizza Friday’ for its followers on the micro-blogging site.
Twitter can make you appear human and responsive, but it won’t mask general customer service failings in your business, warns Lyons.
“It’s important to invest in customer service across your organisation – it’s great to use Twitter, but if customers are on hold for 30 minutes on the phone, that’s a bit of a disconnect,” he explains.
“You need to be driven by a desire to be helpful, not by a desire to sell. One of the realities of online is that you have one or two hours to respond to complaints and if you fail to do this, people fill in the gap with maliciousness.”
“It’s great to say that ‘We’ve heard you, we’ll get back to you.’ This buys you time to respond in a reasonable way. There are troublemakers and sociopaths who will try to bully you, but if you respond reasonably, everyone else will say ‘fair enough’.”
“It’s important not to get involved in pissing contests. Your Twitter guidelines should be to use your best judgement and represent your company the best you can.”