At the most recent BlogExpo Twitter was a huge topic, and with good reason. Although it started more than a year ago with fairly geeky roots, it continues to grow at a breakneck pace. Has it crossed over to the mainstream, yet? I think we're on the cusp. I certainly think that when anchors on CNN start using Twitter to monitor conversations on live television -- it's probably time.
Like a few others, I happen to be quite bullish on the topic of Twitter, not just as a singular web application, but as a medium, and microblogging service. As Mike Arrington of TechCrunch believes, services like Twitter are becoming more and more like a utility, much like the telephone service.
But what about its application in branding? Specifically, its role in brand management?
1. Understanding twitter (AKA microblogging) in the ecosystem of conversation
Whether you Twitter, Plurk, Pownce, or Friendfeed (or all of them), the role of such services for the purposes of brand management is primarily to listen. When Twitter launched, there was some angst about how crushingly banal some of the conversations were. However, like blogging, Twitter had some maturing to do -- and we're maturing still. People still Twitter about what they ate for breakfast, what bus stop they're at and where they plan to have dinner, but its also used for communications of other sorts.
Questions about particular services. Opinions about particular brands. Blog alerts on postings. By average folks. By opinion leaders.
The wonderful thing is that, for the most part, these conversations are public, searchable, and trackable. With this emerging ecosystem of live conversation and thought, anyone with any particular interest can follow ideas, topics, names and places as they happen.
The role of Twitter in brand management first is to listen. Find people who are talking about products, services, and experiences with your brand. Then find their friends. Then find who is driving those conversations and who those opinion leaders are.
The best way to do this is probably starting with Twitter's own search function which was acquired via Summize a few months ago. Search for names of products, services, brand names, competitors and people. Then select the feed icon for that search and follow it actively throughout the day in your favorite feed reeder. Done.
2. Engaging in microconversations
Once you've found your conversations of interest, take a deep breath. Because these are live, unfilitered and unmetered opinion, some of it may also contain a lot of raw emotion. After all, when you only have 140 characters to express yourself, it doesn't lend itself to appropriate self-censoring all the time.
Then, reach out.
I presume you already know about your brand, what it stands for, and what your brand "ideal" experience ought to be. You're probably intimately familiar with tag lines, logos, and all of the literal and visual elements of the brand. Now, with all that in mind, it's time to try and sculpt the experiences of others ... but not in a cynical or sinister way.
I firmly believe that there is a lot of banal conversation on Twitter, but there is a lot of important stuff as well. People talk and reach out when emotions are at their peak, whether it be happy, sad, or frustrated. For many folks, they Twitter during these times not only let themselves be known, but to share in the emotion, to get a response, and for some, a hope for answers as well.
The great thing about reaching out on Twitter, much like the blogosphere in some ways through comments, is that the expectation is close to nil that brand representatives of any fashion are present. Furthermore, the expectation that anyone will actually listen, or even do anything supportive or rectifying is also, for many, close to nil.
If you're able to answer questions, respond to opinion, and engage in a real human way (such as the admission that you don't know the answer), you'll shock and pleasantly surprise most Twitterers.
If they've got issues, and you've been empowered to use Twitter in this way, take ownership of the problem. Point them in the direction of someone who can solve it, or work with it until you can.
Because the bar on Twitter is so low, the mere act of appearing on Twitter can be a powerful first step that gets people noticing. Listening is better. Fixing and solving is, of course, best, and can generate word of mouth traffic and notice that is difficult to put a number sign to.
3. Dealing with "thought leaders"
Of course you should try and engage each Twitterer you meet equally. It's critical to keep in mind, that someone who has 5 followers should, in all seriousness, be treated with an equal amount of respect. Every conversation is searchable, and for folks who looking for particular problems, they'll find the exchange just as easily as you could.
However, like in any democracy, there are some Twitters who are, in some ways, more equal than others. And the relative "importance" of these individuals is sometimes, but not always, easy to recognize in the number of followers they have. I say "not-always" because sometimes a person's relative worth or importance may not always be measured by such metrics. They might be well known off line, or be followed by a few popular Twitterers, for example.
For Twitterers who have followers in the hundreds or thousands, engagements *will* be noticed by their followers, and so be prepared to engage in a way that's relative to the audience. However, if you've gotten this far in the article, congratulations, because you've probably identified this as a great opportunity.
It's hard to get any opinion leader to talk about your product, service, or brand (ask any start up about TechCrunch, for example). True, it's never ideal when it's mentioned in a less than flattering light, however, Twitter provides a great way of turning this into a fantastic opportunity. Unlike blogs, where the author may or may not respond, and the author may or may not append their original blog post, on Twitter, especially if you respond in real time, you can literally change people's opinion on the spot.
A great example was with Mike Arrington himself, when he was bitterly complaining about the service he was getting with Comcast. Turns out Comcast was listening, and worked on things in an expeditious fashion. Problem was solved, and Arrington went on to blog about it.
It would be tough to measure how much that good publicity would have cost.
At the end of the day, every conversation about your name, service, products, or brand, should be treated as an opportunity to engage people -- in real time -- with their experiences, and no matter how good it is, try and make it better, in the way that the ideal brand experience ought to be.
Using Twitter this way is not for the lazy, uninterested, or the disempowered. It necessitates a melding of great customer service and the knowledge of what the brand is, how it ought to be, and the integrity to realize that there are always going to be shortcomings. As trite as it sounds, when you engage people in Twitter, you are live and you are searchable. And in many cases, you may not get a second chance if you flub the first.
But in a time when expectations are so low, it represents, in many cases, not just an opportunity, but an easy opportunity to engage in a way that's human, real, and in a way that proves that your brand is listening and willing to help.
Tony Hung is not a web designer, nor a code developer, nor digerati, technorati or any other sort of new media guru. He is a blogger who has an interest on topics ranging from the evolution of all media, the social web, web2.0, marketing, and a trailmix of everything in between. He is also the former editor of The Blog Herald, one of the oldest blogging institutions in the blogosphere. (During the day, and possibly night, particularly when he is on call he's also a 3rd year Resident Fellow in General Internal Medicine) Fellow in Palliative Care, having completed a General Internal Medicine residency.
He blogs at Deep Jive Interests.