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Can Twitter help grow your business?

Monday, 28 February 2011 | By Oliver Milman

Twitter birdThe 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.”

 

Customer insight

 

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.

 

Reaching out

 

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.”

The ability of small businesses to offer a personal touch in their tweets is a customer service boon – basic phycology tells us that it’s harder to be irate with an engaged human being than a disinterested corporate monolith.

 

Several small businesses have capitalised fully on the ability to project multiple different personalities on Twitter to give them an approachable, quirky presence.

 

Barking up the right tree

 

Scott Kilmartin, founder of tech accessories retailer Haul, has three Twitter accounts – one for himself, one for Haul and one for Gus, his boxer dog who is often found lounging around the company’s Melbourne store. Gus has more than 1,500 followers.

 

Haul’s newsletters are occasionally written from Gus’ point of view, while customers get order delivery confirmations from the dog via text.


“Gus sometimes references Haul, but it’s a loose tie to the business,” Kilmartin explains. “I didn’t want it to be all about selling, I wanted it to have its own personality.”

 

“Gus initially had his own Facebook page, but they cleaned it up and kicked off all non-human accounts, so he wrote an outraged letter to the New York Times and then Twitter came along.”

 

“ROI is hard to measure with Twitter. Can I say that Gus has affected the bottom line? No, not as a percentage. But can I say that we’ve had sales because people have come in due to Gus? Yes, I can.”


“People who tweet that they are coming to Haul say that they are coming to see Gus – you wouldn’t get that kind of connection by going to Diesel, for example. Gus was part of the business anyway, so it’s a nice extension of the brand. Everyone has got to know him.”

 

“You’ve got to use what you have. A mate of mine has moved his business to an old fire station. That building is his Gus – he should use the pole, the fire engines and so on. You need to find a quirk and use it.”

 

“So many big companies analyse Twitter to the point of paralysis. It’s a tactics tool – things happen on the fly and you Tweet it. In a way, the Haul account is the hardest one to do as you don’t want to overly sell to people. We have a loose rule of thumb where one in three tweets is about Haul, but we also mention our mates at Mountain Goat. I think you get good karma from mentioning other businesses.”

 

Two for one?

 

Kilmartin says that Haul rarely tweets offers on its products, but it’s a tactic that many businesses have enthusiastically embraced, to varying degrees of success.

 

The secret to Twitter offers, according to Lyons, is to target them carefully, ideally to your core customer base.

 

“You should have a hierarchy of who you release offers too,” he says. “As you build your customer base, see who re-tweets you and treat them as core customers. Release your offers to these people first. Imagine if you weren’t told about an offer from a brand which you’re a loyal fan of – you wouldn’t be happy.”

 

“In terms of your offers being passed on, you need to ask yourself the question, ‘Why would your followers share this with their network?’ We don’t tend to spam our friends, so you need to think about what they will want to pass on.”

 

Changing the game?

 

So can Twitter be a game-changer for your business? There is no simple answer to that, but it’s important not to see it as magic instant fuel to your sales.

 

“I see so many businesses give Twitter a go and then give it up because they don’t get any benefit,” says Lyons. “Everyone looking for a silver bullet and I think Twitter has been misrepresented as free marketing.”

 

“Developing a relationship isn’t easy, it takes effort and empathy. You need to show you care more about your followers than your revenue stream.”

 

“Long-term, it’s about sales, but it takes a lot of steps to get there. You need to move people from awareness to consideration and then to sale.”

 

“Don’t use it just to flog stuff. I’m often asked how many marketers understand Twitter. I answer ‘every one – when they are the consumer.’ The rules go out of the window when they are marketing.”

 

Twitter do’s

 

Listen before you do: see how others use Twitter before you make your move.

 

Update your account regularly: there’s nothing worse than a stale Twitter profile.

 

Promote others: don’t be afraid to mention other companies or industry figures. They may well return the favour and it helps build relationships.

 

Post content: tweets on their own can be fairly dull. Post content from your blog or site as often as possible.

 

Use measurement: work out your objectives for using Twitter and measure them. Signing up to link shortening site bit.ly, for example, allows you to see how often your links are clicked upon.

 

Twitter don’ts

 

Spam everyone: using Twitter merely as a blunt selling instrument turns people off your business and will result in very poor returns.

 

Further annoy irate customers: respond quickly and courteously to complaints. Even if customers are still unhappy, they will appreciate your responsiveness.

 

Use it as a delivery tool without consideration: tweeting customers to confirm their deliveries is a great, personal touch. But if you are planning to shift 10,000 units a day within a year or two, you probably won’t be able to keep this up.

 

Dwell on the negatives: if you have five positive comments and one negative comment, don’t overly dwell upon the latter.

 

Bypass your customers: if your customers don’t use Twitter, then there’s not much point in you doing so either.

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