Is Twitter the Next Second Life?

If you’re a marketer who has steered clear of Twitter, your (non)strategy may be paying off! It’s possible that this Twitter thing may just take care of itself.

In the middle of last year, Twitter’s growth slowed from 7.8 million new users a month to 6.2 million, according to a recent study from RJ Metrics. That report also found that only 17 percent of Twitter users updated their accounts in December — an all-time low. An earlier study by the Nielsen Co. revealed 60 percent of Twitter users do not return from one month to the next. Taking that into account, it’s tempting to conclude that Twitter is following in the footsteps of another social-media ghost town, Second Life.

In fairness, the raw data may be deceptive. Twitter’s proponents argue that its numbers appear low because so many people access Twitter via ways other than its Web site. But some marketers are ready to write the microblogging service off. “I’m not a big fan of Twitter,” says Joel Ewanick, group vp of marketing for Hyundai. “My Twitter meter has gone down.” Ewanick says he finds Facebook, which has copied most of Twitter’s best features, to be a superior platform. “[Twitter has] become the butt of a joke. You start seeing in popular culture people making fun of Twitter.” Geoff Cottrill, CMO for Converse, seconded that.

“Twitter is a little bit overrated,” he says. “There will be a new media toy that will replace it in a year or two.” Meanwhile, according to VentureBlog, Procter & Gamble execs recently told venture capitalists that they didn’t think Twitter was “particularly relevant to what they’re doing on the brand-building and advertising side” and that “they do not believe that Twitter will ever approach what they get out of a Google or Facebook.” (A P&G rep declined comment on the report.)

Like Second Life, Twitter has become a wasteland for brands. Verizon, a company that spent more than $1 billion on advertising in 2009, has around 5,000 followers — about 0.3 percent the amount that Perez Hilton has. Coca-Cola has 15,000. Apple’s not even on Twitter. And some corporate Twitter accounts suffer from prolonged neglect. Delta Airlines’ Twitter page went from June 17 to Dec. 22 last year without a single update. Delta reps could not be reached for comment.

Sienna Farris, director of social media marketing strategy for New York agency Strawberry Frog, says that Twitter isn’t for everyone. Farris, like other experts contacted for this article, says that all marketers should be mining the real-time mentions of their brands on Twitter, but otherwise, there are just a few areas where Twitter makes sense for marketers — customer relations management, the hawking of deals and as a vehicle for promotions. (Twitter also seems to be a great venue for smaller, lesser-known brands.)

When it comes to Twitter’s success among large brands, Dell is the exception that proves the rule. The PC maker not only has a large following on the platform, but also has some ROI to show as well. The brand claimed $6.5 million in Twitter revenues in 2009. About half of that came from @DellOutlet, a Twitter account dedicated to announcing deals at the company’s factory outlet (the rest of the revenues come from international Twitter accounts). Richard Binhammer, senior manager of corporate affairs better known by his Twitter name “RichardatDELL,” says that with its permission-based, real-time nature, Twitter makes sense for that brand. “At Dell Outlet, we don’t know what our inventory’s going to be from day one to day two,” says Binhammer. “It’s pretty unpredictable. It’s an outlet store, so it’s open-box specials.” @DellOutlet, at this writing, has close to 1.6 million followers.

@DellOutlet is actually one of dozens of Dell Twitter accounts. Some of those are dedicated to customer service, which raises the question: Is this CRM or PR? Binhammer says that’s irrelevant. The real goal, he maintains, is reaching consumers: “It’s not about us launching a customer support channel, and that channel happens to be Twitter. What happens is, we go wherever our customers are on the Web. Some of our customers happen to be on Twitter. Where they are is where we need to go.”

Dell’s success didn’t go unnoticed. Comcast, which suffered the same kind of blog-based complaints over customer service as Dell has, now operates a successful Twitter CRM program. In July, Best Buy also launched Twelpforce, a Twitter-based customer-relations management plan that was meant to blur the lines between customer service and marketing, according to company CMO Barry Judge. “Clearly, Twelpforce has the potential to be a resource for our customers in helping them do the things they aspire to with technology,” Judge wrote on his blog. “Secondly, I think Twelpforce can be a catalyst to think very differently across our company about customer service. No longer do we need to passively wait in our channels for people to come to us. With Twelpforce specifically and social media in general, we can actively seek out the conversations that increasingly are happening outside our channels.” Despite Best Buy’s commitment, though, to date the company’s Twitter page has only about 19,000 followers.

Looking at the astronomical follow rates of celebrities like Ashton Kutcher or Oprah Winfrey, it’s tempting to conclude that unless you’re peddling deals like Dell Outlet, the best strategy is to hitch your brand to a personality. That’s what Ford did with Scott Monty, a former advertising exec-turned-Twitter gadfly who is now the head of social media for Ford Motor. As a sort of living representative of Ford, Monty, who has about 37,000 followers, has appeared on the Adam Carolla Podcast and at BlogWorld Expo. “We’re getting a ton of listeners or attendees who wouldn’t think about Ford or a Ford product,” Monty says. Jim Tobin, president of Ignite Social Media, a Web 2.0 marketing consultancy, says Ford benefits greatly by the association with Monty. “He’s a Ford employee,” explains Tobin, who believes Monty has more credibility than a celebrity endorser. “Everyone knows that Tiger [Woods] is getting paid to promote whatever he’s promoting.”

But Monty appears to be an anomaly. Other brands that have tried to launch a persona on Twitter have failed to win many fans. Adam Denison, Monty’s counterpoint at Chevrolet, has 2,300 followers. Denison says the company decided in December to switch its Twitter focus to its Chevrolet account — which had about 1,600 followers at last check.

Chevrolet is having more luck on Facebook, where its official site has more than 62,000 fans. David Berkowitz, senior director of emerging media and innovation for interactive shop 360i, says anemic Twitter accounts and robust presences on Facebook will be the norm. “For some brands, just maintaining their turf [on Twitter] with the occasional update might be enough,” he says. “A bigger danger is to go in and make it clear they’re going to get involved [in Twitter] and then ignore it.” Not too many brands are doing the former these days.

For Smaller, Independent Brands, How Tweet It Is

At first blush, a greeting-card company like Hallmark would seem to have it all over an outfit like Someecards. The 99-year-old Hallmark has its own corporate campus in Kansas City, Mo., and employs 14,000 people — 700 of whom are full-time writers and artists. By contrast, Someecards has been in business less than two years. Its full-time staff numbers five — and the company president doubles as the chief writer.

But when it comes to Twitter, the profile reverses itself. Hallmark has 2,017 followers. And Someecards? Try 1.7 million. “And we’ve only been using Twitter a little over a year now,” adds CEO Duncan Mitchell.

Witness a curious dichotomy of social media: While most brands are now tweeting as a way to reach consumers, the biggest ones with the most resources are often left in the dust by the indie brands with a fraction of their market share.

There are several theories behind this twist. To be effective, marketers say, tweets don’t just have to be brief, but cool and snarky as well — two traits that seldom come easy to a buttoned-up, publicly traded corporation. Another reason is that upstart brands are more readily associated with entrepreneurial personalities, who can in turn use Twitter to convey the mood and swagger of their brands better than a large PR department. Whatever the reasons, it’s the up-and-coming brands that seem to have squeezed the most marketing juice out of Twitter.

“It gives my brand a greater reach. It helps to extend the bounds of a small business,” says Javier Alfonzo, CEO of OddFit, a custom T-shirt company based in Providence, R.I. Like many brands, OddFit tweets various special offers and new products, but Alfonzo — who has some 4,800 followers at present — takes it a step further.

“I like to use Twitter to express my creative personality,” he says. Some of his tweets feature snippets of wisdom, the likes of which OddFit will put on a T-shirt (e.g., “Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have”). Others have nothing to do with T-shirts — at least literally — such as the link Alfonzo recently tweeted for an online tutorial on breast enhancement using Photoshop. Accompanying it was the line: “Here’s how they do it, girls!” (It’s tough to imagine getting a tweet like that from, say, Procter & Gamble.)

Duncan Mitchell of Someecards also sees value in sardonic content for his tweets, and the medium seems ready-made for his company. “We believe in short-form communication,” Mitchell says. “Our cards match our tweets in size.” Plus, since his business partner Brook Lundy is already writing new cards daily, “faster than we can produce a card, we can produce a tweet. It’s not a lot of extra effort to write short, snarky one-liners.”

Someecards uses shortlinking service Bitley to tweet linkbacks to the company site where visitors can see its latest cards, but the reason for its huge following is doubtless its content, which ranges from reliably funny to uniquely outrageous. (Case in point, a Jan. 21 tweet: “Reminder! Order Valentine’s Day cards and gifts by Feb. 1 for on-time delivery and a better chance of oral sex.”) This stripe of humor is possible because Twitter is an opt-in medium, so only “interested parties,” as Mitchell terms them, are going to receive his quirky one-liners.

Meanwhile, some small brands don’t boast massive followings, but nonetheless say that Twitter is a marketing lifeline — quick, targeted and (best of all) free. Russell Whitmore runs a small vintage jewelry shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., called Erie Basin. He uses Twitter to notify his 640 followers (if that number seems small, consider that diamond-giant Zales has only 471 followers) about the new estate pieces he gets in.

“I tend to tweet things that I personally like or find interesting,” Whitmore says. The feeling that a ring or brooch has been personally selected or chosen adds to the appeal of the tweet. Whitmore’s linkbacks bring followers to his blog, where they’ll find item photos that he puts a great deal of effort into. “If you post a link to a picture of something pretty, it’s likely that people will retweet the image,” Whitmore says. “So you end up getting a following from other people’s followers.”

But does any of this really generate hard revenue for a brand? Some say yes; others not quite. “We definitely have sales directly from Twitter,” Whitmore says. “Several times, Twitter users have messaged me asking to buy a specific item.” Ditto for Someecards — which generates revenues from advertising, not the sale of cards. “I am 100 percent convinced that we have won pitches for ad business that we wouldn’t have gotten without our Twitter following,” Mitchell says.

Then there’s Root, a small-batch, craft liqueur made by Philadelphia-based Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Root has only 400 Twitter followers, but they’re all “fans of the brand,” according to Web strategist Michael Feldman. “We don’t approach [tweeting] from a marketing or advertising perspective,” he says. “It’s not necessarily a numbers game for us. It’s more important to have a small, active following than a large, passive one.”

By: Todd Wasserman (Is Twitter the Next Second Life) and Robert Klara (For Smaller, Independent Brands, How Tweet It Is)

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