How Companies Use Twitter to Bolster Their Brands

Microblogging lets an airline, for instance, monitor customers' gripesand tweet back. Is this a creepy trend?

When Jonathan Fields spotted William Shatner waiting to board a JetBlue flight at New York's JFK in May, he did what any other self-respecting blogger would do. He popped open his Apple (AAPL) Mac, connected to the Web using the free Wi-Fi provided by JetBlue, and used Twitter to share the sighting with pals. "JetBlue terminal," Fields wrote on the blog service that lets users send short messages of 140 characters with status updates to groups of friends. "William Shatner waiting in pinstripe suit and shades to board flight to Burbank. Why's he flying JetBlue? Free, maybe?"

But he was caught off guard by what happened next. Within 10 seconds he got an e-mail informing him that JetBlue (JBLU) was following him on Twitter.

"It totally startled me," says the 42-year-old author, who initially worried that JetBlue might be monitoring his use of the Wi-Fi connection. JetBlue employee Morgan Johnston quickly explained that wasn't the case. JetBlue keeps tabs on what Twitter users say about it, using a scanning tool, to find customers who might need information, say, on flight delays or cancellations, Johnston said.

Keeping Constant Tabs

A growing number of companies are keeping track of what's said about their brands on Twitter. Comcast (CMCSA), Dell (DELL), General Motors (GM), H&R Block (HRB), Kodak (EK), and Whole Foods Market (WFMI) are among a handful of companies haunting Twitter to do everything from burnish brands to provide customer service. The attention to Twitter reflects the power of new social media tools in letting consumers shape public discussion over brands. "The real control of the brand has moved into the customer's hands, and technology has enabled that," says Lane Becker, president of Get Satisfaction, a Web site that draws together customers and companies to answer each other's questions and give feedback on products and services.

Begun in 2006, Twitter is a pioneer of microblogging, a way for users to keep others informed of their current status by way of text messaging, instant messaging, e-mail, or the Web. Other services that have followed suit include Jaiku, Pownce, FriendFeed, and Plurk. At this stage, many brands are sticking to Twitter, which has amassed a larger number of users. While Twitter doesn't release exact numbers, estimates range from 1 million to 3 million users.

It's not just audience size that draws brands. People who use the site are likely to hold sway over others. A single Twitter message—known informally as a tweet—sent in frustration over a product or a service's performance can be read by hundreds or thousands of people. Similarly, positive interaction with a representative of the manufacturer or service provider can help change an influencer's perspective for the better.

JetBlue, Comcast, and H&R Block are among the companies that recognize Twitter's potential in providing customer service. For companies, tools such as Tweetscan or Twitter's own search tool, formerly known as Summize, make it easy to unearth a company's name mentioned in tweets. "Why wouldn't you want to be able to take care of that person at the moment when it's most important?" says JetBlue's Johnston. The services are free, helping keep costs low.

Get on the Ball

GM took notice the day a prospective buyer was at a Saturn dealership, ready to make a purchase, but couldn't find anyone to help him. "He was starting to get upset about it," says Adam Denison, who helps coordinate social media communications at GM. "When we saw it, we immediately let our Saturn colleagues know about it…and they could get the ball rolling a little bit better." The person bought a Saturn in the end—though at a different dealership, Denison says.

Not all customers want Corporate America following their tweets. "It has potential for delivering business value, clearly, but at the same time there are some risks to it," says Ray Valdes, research director of Web services at consulting firm Gartner (IT). While it is a useful brand-monitoring tool, it "can come across as a little creepy." Christofer Hoff tweeted his displeasure with Southwest (LUV) on Apr. 28, when his flight was delayed and his luggage disappeared. The next day he received the following message from Southwest: "Sorry to hear about your flight—weather was terrible in the NE. Hope you give us a 2nd chance to prove that Southwest = Awesomeness." In a blog post about the incident, Hoff wrote that it was "cool and frightening at the same time."

Companies can mitigate the creep factor by clearly identifying the individuals who are Twittering. Putting a face on the Twitter account goes a long way to making it friendly, experts say. Dell has more than 20 official Twitter accounts, each managed by an individual, not a faceless business unit.

For some companies, the Twitter learning curve can be steep. That was true for Frank Eliason, who began publicly tweeting for Comcast customer service in April. People told him that his language was too formal. "I came from financial services, and that's how I always speak," he says. So he tried to loosen up. "If you do that, you get a lot of respect from the followers," he says, referring to people who sign up to receive your tweets. Also, he says it's important not to get defensive when a customer vents about your company. Instead, he says the best response is, "Can I help you?"

Embracing Transparency

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh looks at any opportunity to interact with customers as a chance to burnish his company's brand. Perhaps one of the most zealous CEOs when it comes to Twitter, he follows more than 10,000 people, and nearly the same number follow him. (Zappos, an online shoe, clothing, and accessories retailer, has about 8 million customers.) Hsieh tweets multiple times per day, talking about everything from what he had for lunch to his trip to China for the Olympics. "You have to embrace the whole transparency thing for it to work well," he says.

Hsieh has encouraged his employees to use Twitter, even posting a guide to using Twitter on the Zappos site. He says using Twitter can help employees to get to know one another and create a cohesive corporate identity. "Initially it took a bit of commitment because nobody had used it," he says. "Twitter has helped with our company culture." Today, more than 400 employees Twitter at Zappos.

In a July 2008 report, Gartner added microblogging to its list of technologies that will transform business over the next two to five years. Yet, the majority of companies still haven't gotten the microblogging religion. The result is that a good many Twitter domain names have been registered by other people. A British site called Twitter Names Parked is selling Twitter domains for about 20 pounds ($36.70). As of Aug. 28, brand names for sale included ChevyCars, ChryslerMotors, FordMotor, LincolnMercury, INGDirect, Purell, and StephenKing.

Some people use unofficial accounts to send messages that weren't authorized by the company. Earlier this year, Exxon Mobil (XOM) discovered that a person named Janet was fooling many people by posing as an employee of Exxon Mobil. "Our concern was that people reading the postings would think that this person was speaking on the company's behalf," says Exxon Mobil spokesman Chris Welberry. "We didn't want to do anything heavy-handed about people expressing their views in a social networking environment. We just wanted to make sure that people who are doing that are open and transparent."

No Impersonation Allowed

After Exxon discovered Janet, the company contacted Twitter. "Twitter doesn't allow impersonation or domain squatting, which is grabbing a user name and saying you want money," Twitter co-founder Biz Stone says. "But they really do have to be impersonating or infringing on copyright. If somebody's last name happens to be Mobil, the company doesn't have a strong case there." Janet's account was taken out of commission.

But social media sensations are like quicksilver. Today companies may need to pay attention to Twitter. Tomorrow, they may have to join Pownce, Jaiku, FriendFeed, or Plurk, especially if outages keep hobbling Twitter. Newell Rubbermaid (NWL), owner of more than 30 brands including Rubbermaid, Graco, and Sharpie, is hedging its bets by trying several different microblogging sites, including Twitter, FriendFeed, and Pownce. "Eventually we'll determine which ones work," says Bert DuMars, Newell Rubbermaid's vice-president for e-business and interactive marketing. Dumars cautions that brands can't expect instant results. "It's a long-term commitment," he says.

JetBlue's Johnston concurs. "It's a very delicate balance, and I've messed it up a couple times," he says. After startling Fields at the outset, Johnston apologized and e-mailed Fields, saying how he only intended to make a lighthearted retort about how maybe Shatner flew JetBlue because he wanted to watch the Sci-Fi Network. Ultimately, Fields was won over. "I was blown away that a company of this size actually had a guy dedicated to Twitter not only to monitor it but to engage in conversation."

Business Exchange related topics:TwitterMicro-BloggingSocial Media Business SuccessSocial NetworkingBusiness Networking OnlineSocial MarketingSocial Media Branding

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