Office supplies retailer has created full-fledged social media customer service channel since late last year. It's using tweets for sales, merchandising, and damage control.
In five short months, Staples has turned its Twitter account into a marketing insights and sales engine. Perhaps more importantly, the office supplies retailer has quickly learned the social site's benefits for customer relations.
On Black Friday last year, a Staples.com coupon code malfunctioned - to the chagrin of thousands of eager customers looking to take advantage of early holiday season deals. The Twitter account became a key asset in quelling the concerns of upset shoppers, said Heather Deschenes, director of digital marketing for the brand. Deschenes' colorfully branded "Tweet Team" (see image below right) immediately went into damage control.
"Our phone lines were flooded with people who could not get the discount," she said. "They were so flooded you couldn't even get through. People started tweeting... We tweeted back to the entire population."
Since then, the brand has grown its follower base to 32,200 and increased its Twitter reps from a handful to 20. To encourage people to follow the Framingham, MA-based retailer, it has employed giveaway promotions for new-to-market technology products like netbooks. Consumers have typically had to follow the company to enter the contests.
"In some cases, we've required them to retweet it to their base," Deschenes said. "We've tried a bunch of initiatives. I wouldn't say that we have culminated to one way of doing it. We are still in the experimental phase."
Indeed, while it is early days for Staples' Twitter play, the company hasn't come close to reaching the more seasoned customer relations levels of brands like Dell and Zappos.com with their millions of followers.
But Staples has ably reacted to its growth. The holidays' tweet volume showed Deschenes it was necessary to tap the customer care department for specialists who had been simultaneously handling phone, e-mail, and chat. She had to train those new members to her team in not only the technical aspects of using Twitter, but also how to keep the brand's "tweet voice" intact. And the incoming reps wouldn't have the copy-and-paste response sentences that they may have become accustomed to employing during instant chat sessions.
"Part of our branding is to make sure we have a voice," she said. "I think if you read through some of our tweets, you'll see that voice come to life."
Reflecting industry protocol in other customer service mediums, Deschenes and her team have trained the Twitter reps to help followers find items and buy them by providing links to product pages at Staples.com. She said the retailer is also flagging and collecting relevant followers' tweets to inform future marketing and merchandising efforts.
"It's not just a channel for customer service," Deschenes said. "We get a lot of customer insight. We try to bucket the different kinds of inquiries. Do we see more inquiries that are customer service related? As we grow our follower base, we have to model out how many reps we think we are going to need to handle this channel. If we see more conversations that are product-related, we need to be more actively engaged with our merchandising team to get them part of the tweet family."
It's worth noting that Staples' experiences jibe well with a new report by Edison Research, which found Twitter users are more likely than members of other social networks to interact with brands. According to the study, 51 percent of Twitter users said they follow at least one brand.
Meanwhile, Deschenes suggested that the work-hours paid and other investments that have gone into the Twitter channel have likely been worth the expense. With that in mind, her team plans on turning its attention to metrics that show results like conversions and ROI.
"We don't have a [sophisticated] measurement system yet," she said. "For right now, it's looking at, 'How many followers drop off? How many new followers did we get? How many re-tweets are happening?' Some of those basic metrics... We are not currently trying to trace back to sales. That's something we'll be working on in the future."
Follow Christopher Heine on Twitter at @ChrisClickZ.
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Christopher Heine was a senior writer for ClickZ through June 2012. He covered social media, sports/entertainment marketing, retail, and more. Heine's work has also appeared via Mashable, Brandweek, DM News, MarketingSherpa, and other tech- and ad-centric publications. USA Today, Bloomberg Radio, and The Los Angeles Times have cited him as an expert journalist.
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