Despite Debate, Brands Find Value on Twitter

It’s been called a tech-geek fad, a business flop-to-be, and a waste of time for most marketers, but the fact is big name brands are on Twitter. While detractors argue brands don’t even belong on the quick messaging platform, they are there — from Ford to Dunkin’ Donuts to Whole Foods. They’re engaging in experiments with customer service, branding, and corporate culture-building in the decidedly public forum.

Some see Twitter as an extension of the marketing department; others view it as a customer service tool, and some say it’s best for corporate communications.

Scott Monty tackles it from the communications side. Before joining Ford Motor Company in July as its global digital and multimedia communications manager — a position the automaker created for him — he had a decent following through his personal account on Twitter. “I wanted to get down and personal with people,” said Monty, who believes Twitter enables that more so than Facebook, MySpace, or blogs. Getting personal made sense for Ford, which, according to Monty, hopes to “humanize the brand.”

Eventually, he decided to maintain his personal account and use it as a communication tool in association with his new role at Ford, and he branded the account as such. “I knew there would have to be a combination of personal and corporate presence,” he said.

But he also needed to harness the stray Twitter accounts that had been created by Ford divisions, create new ones, and apply some sort of structure and dedicated purpose to them. Currently, the firm has about six accounts, including FordDriveOne, the main corporate account; FordDriveGreen, an account focused on environmental technologies; and FordCustService for, well, customer service.

Monty currently handles all the accounts, but plans to hand them over to the appropriate teams once they’re “warmed up,” he said. “If we hadn’t had the current financial crisis going on I would have trained and staffed up for the auto shows.” The North American International Auto Show 2009 will be held in Detroit in January, followed by the Washington Auto Show in February.

“There’s something so gratifying about being able to connect in real-time and in a real way,” said a Dunkin’ Donuts spokesperson regarding the chain’s use of Twitter. “We went into this without any set expectations other than to start a conversation and see if people would participate.” The firm has over 3,000 followers on Twitter.

According to a new report from HubSpot, at least 5,000 new accounts are created on Twitter each day. Thirty-five percent have 10 or fewer followers. In 2008, several brands established a Twitter presence, including H&R Block, Southwest Airlines, Jet Blue, Dell, and Home Depot.

“[D]o you sell bulk coffee? we NEED something better at work,” wrote a Twitter user to “Dunkin’ Dave,” whose response was quick and casual. Linking to a company Web site page dedicated to the “Regular Refills” coffee delivery program, he responded, “DD Coffee Subscription?” As a member of the company’s corporate communications department, Dunkin’ Dave tweets “on the behalf of the DD mothership.”

Many of his posts, or “tweets” are not responses to questions, though. Rather, they’re brief notes about things like the weather outside his office, or appearances at new store locations. “St. Augustine, FL! Grand Opening 12/13 9a-3p 7440 US 1 N. Appearances by frmr NFL All-Pro Marco Coleman and NY Mets’ Daniel Murphy,” announced a recent tweet.

Customer Service and Multi-Purpose Twittering
While Ford and Dunkin’ have some interaction with other Twitter users, Comcast’s experience tends to be much more conversational. “It’s key to really be a two-way dialogue and from a service perspective it’s the best way to approach that,” said Frank Eliason, director of digital care for Comcast, who thinks corporate communications people tend to be too focused on getting out a particular message to serve as Twitter brand reps.

Eliason has made a name for ComcastCares, the Twitter account he uses to interact with Comcast customers, as part of the firm’s customer service department. He also uses social spaces like blogs and online forums to seek out people with customer service issues he can respond to either through digital communication, or by simply picking up the phone and calling them. Comcast has three Twitter accounts run by Eliason and two other digital care staffers.

Though Eliason clearly sees Comcast’s usage of Twitter from a customer service perspective, it may have a branding effect, too. “Basically [Comcast is] improving the perception of the brand,” suggested Filiberto Selvas, recently hired as strategy director and social media discipline lead at Razorfish. “If you agree with a concept that brand is what the consumer perceives, then Twitter is a brand tool,” added his colleague, Strategy Director Andrea Harrison. The digital agency sees Twitter as one of many tools for what it calls, “social influence marketing.”

Other Twittering brands have evolved their accounts for use as forums for customer service, message dissemination, and branding. “Christmas is in two days! Check out this last minute Christmas help round-up from our very own Paige,” said a recent tweet from WholeFoods. The company, which has nearly 12,000 followers, also responded last week to a complaint: “I’m not sure what this @wholefoods ‘all-purpose baking flour’ is, but I do know it lead s to lumpy cookies,” lamented a Twitterer. The company apologized, adding, “you can def. return it for a refund!”

The 140-character limit for all Twitter posts lends to the casual quality of brand interactions on the platform.

Brand-building and customer service are only tertiary Twitter purposes for online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos. The firm’s CEO Tony Hsieh has been using the platform since March 2007, and has become somewhat of a celebrity Twitterer, with over 26,000 followers. “After using it with just my close friends for about a year, I realized how much Twitter had allowed me to form more personal connections with everyone, so we decided to introduce it to Zappos as a way of growing our company culture. We’ve found that it’s been great for building more personal connections with both employees and customers,” Hsieh told ClickZ News.

The majority of his posts are either silly musings (“Tried to make coffee. Forgot to put the actual coffee in the maker so wound up w/ just a cup of hot water. I think I’ll need a double now.”) or, more often, status reports: “Dinner with @kevinrose at Okada at the Wynn in Vegas. He was wearing a tshirt so they made him put on a jacket.”

The company has gone so far as offering Twitter classes to employees. “Employees aren’t forced to use it, but when there are so many Zappos employees using it, many employees just gravitate naturally to it,” noted Hsieh. Over 400 of the firm’s staff have Twitter accounts.

Personality and Dedication Are Key
While some brands and their representatives use Twitter for some strategic purpose, as part of a broader social media program, Hsieh bristles at the concept. “Personally, I hate the term ‘social media.’ “And I hate the term ‘social media initiatives’ even more. It’s like asking companies what their telephone initiative is.” He continued, “It’s not about marketing. It’s about building relationships, and it’s about being real and transparent.”

The brands on Twitter that seem to be most successful tend to recognize there needs to be a casual back-and-forth with other users, which can’t be bogged down by legal concerns or rigid PR messages. “It’s not marketing communications..It’s not a direct mail piece; it’s not a one-way conversation,” said Razorfish’s Harrison, who believes product managers often make the best Twitter reps for brands because they are knowledgeable and passionate about the things they help develop.

“If our tweets went through a multi-layered approval process, the authenticity would be lost,” said the Dunkin’ Donuts spokesperson.

Overall, despite debate over whether Twitter is a marketing-, customer service-, or PR-play, there is some consensus regarding the need to take a personal approach. “Nobody wants to have a conversation with a car unless it’s Knight Rider,” said Ford’s Monty, who said he “[doesn’t necessarily draw the line at all” between the Ford brand and himself when on Twitter. “I hope I am able to imbue some kind of personality through these accounts.”

“I intended for the [ComcastCares account] to be used by multiple people, but I realized very quickly it had to be personal,” said Eliason.

Another important element: dedication. ‘”To become part of your consumer’s social graph you need to dedicate resources to keeping it up,” stressed Harrison. If brands are not attentive, she continued, “It actually speaks louder about your disinterest in social media than if you’d never started in the first place.”

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