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Twitter Jitters

Do it right and you’re a genius. Do it wrong and your company may have to say it’s sorry 180 million times. But it’s the only cold call that works well in this century.

Chris Teague, director of marketing at Barnhart, says Twitter excels at linking people who work in specialized fields, such as logistics.

Chris Teague, director of marketing at Barnhart, says Twitter excels at linking people who work in specialized fields, such as logistics.

Photo by Todd Douglas

For you CEOs out there, here’s all you need to know about Twitter.

Many of the smartest people in your company love it and think it could increase revenue. It’s free, but doing it right may cost a fair chunk of change. Doing it wrong costs you customers. And for some companies, it’s an utter waste of resources.

Boom. How simple is that?

A Business Alabama survey of corporate Twitter users around the state suggests that many are getting closer to cracking the elusive code that makes the free social media platform useful, even profitable, to people willing to keep their smart phones close at hand.

Twitter, of course, is the messaging platform with 185 million active users, it reports, as of last December. Users are limited to a 140-character message but can include links to articles and photos that their followers might find interesting. Unlike Facebook, where friends post hamburger pictures or announce they’re at the pub again, the object of Twitter is to be clever, informative and germane to followers’ interests.

Depending on how many people retweet your tweet, it could have much farther reach than just your list of followers. If it catches the eye of a high-profile user, you might get a tweet back from the likes of Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group of more than 400 companies.

But how does that put cash on the barrelhead?

At Alabama Power Co., which has made a slow and careful trek to social networking, the man who helped lead the caravan says the benefits start with customer engagement.

Ike Pigott, an Alabama Power spokesman and its social media lead, says Judgment Day for Twitter in his world turned out to be April 27, 2011, when an EF-4 tornado cut a deadly 80-mile path through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.

Pigott, a former TV newsman, says that storm made it clear at Alabama Power that faster, smarter tools were needed to update customers and the media on company efforts to restore the power grid.

During his years working for the American Red Cross, Pigott says he saw a 70 percent reduction in media calls when disaster updates were put on social media sites. At Alabama Power, the strategy was widened to connect directly with customers.

“We had 422,000 customers out, a top 3 (disaster) event for the company, but now we were free to go out and talk to customers. It wasn’t a media relations strategy, now it was a customer engagement strategy.

“We didn’t want to just talk to important people, suddenly we could talk to anybody on Twitter. We showed pictures of neighborhoods wiped out, not just our crews and equipment. If people are going to not have power for five days, you have to show them how bad the damage is. You can also announce the cavalry is coming, and that’s an important step.”

Customers joined in, tweeting pictures of crews working to restore power. The company received 70 photos from different neighborhoods showing damage when things calmed down. “Everybody wants to be the person who brings good news,” he says. “When we’d show up in a neighborhood, they’d take a picture and become part of it.”

Alabama Power has five staffers who monitor Facebook and Twitter every day. The company had 17,100 Twitter followers at the start of year.

Don’t always swing for the fences on social media, advises Johnny Gwin, creative director at Hummingbird Ideas of Mobile. It’s better to hit a lot of singles and doubles. 

Depending on what your business is, your number of followers might be beside the point.

Chris Teague, director of marketing at Barnhart, a global specialist in the heavy lifting and transport of major components used in American industry, says Twitter has great potential for his company. The company has locations in Decatur, Gadsden and Mobile.

“We’re not retail, we’re not commodity driven, we sell a highly specialized service based on how smart we are. Our motto is ‘minds over matter.’ We’re engineers, and our expertise is our product,” Teague says.

Barnhart uses Twitter to give customers data they’ll find useful. But it’s also used to seek out people at companies who are in a position to hire heavy-lifting geniuses.

“It’s all about who’s following you, that’s where the rubber meets the road. If we follow (a big company) and their CEO follows us back, the truth is we’d prefer to be talking to their VP of construction, but I have to get that person to follow me.”

Their Twitter return on investment? Teague notes that it’s free, though his company has paid for guidance on how to use social media in general. “I can’t give an exact dollar figure, because our sales cycle can be measured in years sometimes, but it got us in front of our current customers to start the selling process.”

Having 30,000 Twitter followers of the wrong sort won’t do you a lick of good, Teague says. Better to have 100 followers who are decision makers in your market.

Using Twitter wisely can fire up a sales staff, according to Johnny Gwin, creative director at Hummingbird Ideas, an advertising and marketing agency based in Mobile.

Gwin cites a survey reported in Forbes, “Impact of Social Media on Sales Quota and Corporate Revenue,” which claims that 78 percent of salespeople using social media outsell their peers. The same survey found 75 percent got no training from their company on how to use social media.

“My clients have a lot of success using Twitter to find people, to fill engineering and tech jobs while keeping costs down. Listening is huge, just listen to Twitter and see what customers are saying about your brands, your industry. Consumers are saying what they want, what you can do to fix something, or maybe that you don’t need to change a damn thing. It’s like a free focus group out there.”

One of Gwin’s clients, BugMaster, stopped showing bugs in its online advertising after online feedback. “We looked at the data and, you know, people don’t want to look at bugs. Ever. We went a softer direction that showed the benefits side of pest control, not the negative side.”

Pinpoint your message and market before hitting social media, says Astrid Keel, assistant professor of marketing at Auburn University.

Hummingbird is launching a six-month initiative with new clients to test the agency’s branding proposals against social media feedback, in essence creating a real time/real world focus group.

Twitter’s roses do come with thorns. A recent study by Ruth Page in the Journal of Pragmatics, a linguistics publication, reported that the word “regret” is used an amazing 37.5 times more frequently in corporate tweets, filtering out non-apologetic uses of the word. A study by Social Media Marketing University, meanwhile, concluded that 50 percent of online brands don’t have a strategy to deal with the blowback of negative posts.

Astrid Keel, assistant professor of marketing at Auburn University’s business school, notes that companies sometimes take “a Whack-A-Mole approach with social media that doesn’t work very well.”

Keel says that Twitter users aren’t representative of all social media users. Potential customers you want to reach might be Pinterest or Facebook users or not on social media at all. Not every business needs to have an extraordinary social media presence on every platform. If they do belong on social media, the company needs to develop a strategy and goals as to what that social media platform can achieve for them.

As an example, she describes a Twitter meltdown in which McDonald’s asked users to share their greatest meal memories at the fast food chain, only to have the hashtag hijacked by people telling horror stories about the brand. A particularly scathing shot: “McDialysis? I’m loving it!”

The company violated a Twitter commandment, Keel says, of not being genuine and playing to its core values. Twitter users expect authenticity and see through brands pretending to be something they’re not.

Companies have to weigh their options, considering whom they want to reach and what their message should be.

“At the end of day, we don’t have unlimited marketing budgets. Someone has to be hired to manage these accounts, and that is not free. One has to be strategic on social media, because there are so many marketing possibilities,” Keel says.

Mark Ervin, Big Communications chief branding officer

WHEN TWITTER HITS THE FAN
Before launching into any social media platform for a client, Big Communications, in Birmingham, considers the brand identity and how it translates into each digital space, anticipating any brand peculiarities that could lead to unfavorable dialogue.

Planning is crucial, but there are occasions when brands misstep and reactionary communication comes into play. It’s important to be transparent, accountable and take action.

1. Delete the tweet, but know that it will never go away or be buried. Consumers expect honesty and will respect your brand for owning up to mistakes.

2. Take responsibility for what happened. It doesn’t matter if an employee or agency acted alone — the consumer doesn’t see it that way. Taking one on the chin will go much further than placing blame.

3. Apologies on social media don’t go far. Determine what you will do to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen again.  

While these steps can be applied any time a brand needs to apologize, the punishment should match the crime. Don’t issue a press release every time feathers are ruffled or a bad joke doesn’t land just right; assess the damage and act accordingly. — Mark Ervin, Big Communications chief branding officer

Dave Helms is copy editor for Business Alabama.

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