Walking a Fine Line: How Companies Use Twitter

Companies must walk a fine line when using social media Websites like Twitter.


“Interesting bit of trivia learned today: the collective noun for turtles would be ‘a bale of turtles.’”

This might seem like an odd message for an airliner to send to nearly 900,000 of its customers. But it was one of JetBlue’s many daily “tweets,” a 140-character message sent to the company’s “followers” on free micro-blogging site Twitter, in response to a customer complaining of a “turtle-related delay” at JFK airport.

Firms are struggling to figure out how to use Twitter, which went live just over two years ago and has since grown by over 1,000 percent annually to reach over six million users today. "People don’t know if it’s a function of marketing, PR, or customer service,” says Greg Galant, head of Twitter aggregator Sawhorse Media. “In reality it's all of the above.”

Above all, companies are using Twitter to make their brands look good.

Firms eager to capitalize on the free communications tool have identified multiple uses for the medium, such as branding, direct marketing and gauging trends. But unlike traditional online advertising, firms are careful not to be overbearing.

Morgan Johnston, the JetBlue social media strategist, calls those who tweet under the brand's name guests of the community. He tries to be “quiet” on Twitter by carrying out most conversations through direct messages, or private tweets sent directly to specific users.

Michelle Lapierre of MarriottRewards says Twitter “isn’t a place for us to market; it's a place for customers to have conversations."

Zappos, a small online retailer with an impressive Twitter following of nearly 1 million, purposefully doesn't market using social media. "If these tools help you get a sense of what our culture is like, then we’ve succeeded," says marketing director Aaron Magnus.

@Zappos, the Twitter account of the company’s CEO, tweets only once or twice a day. One is more likely to come across quotes by Winnie the Pooh or bits of interesting news than mentions of the Zappos name. For example, on July 4th, the CEO tweeted: “Learned today Poland Spring water comes from Maine, not Poland. Also, Sarah Palin resigned. Not sure which was more shocking.”

This is part of a strategy that Paul Dunay, author of Facebook Marketing for Dummies, calls giving customers the “lasting aftertaste of a brand” through Twitter.

Dunay believes the power of social media cannot be tapped using direct marketing. Rather, firms need to "pull out the chewy goodness of their brand and it will spread through the Internet like wildfire."

It’s not about measuring return, says Zappos’ Magnus. "It’s a free service, so if a single sale comes from it, then everybody wins," he says. Zappos, like Whole Foods , JetBlue and other Twitter-savvy corporations with around one million followers, is not attempting to monetize its Twitter activities.

From News Feed to Coupon Feed

Still, some firms have found success in using Twitter much like an online coupon feed. Dunay calls this a one-way broadcast, more like a virtual commercial than a conversation with customers.

JetBlue recently launched the account @JetBlueCheeps, which offers followers links to cheap last-minute flight deals. This may be an attempt to replicate the success of @DellOutlet, one of Dell’s Twitter accounts, which has directly generated $2 million in revenue over the last two years. Nearly 900,000 followers receive a flood of links to deals on the company's discount website.

Twitter allows users to tweet with abridged URL’s, enabling firms to provide links in every 140-character message. Users can also include hashtags, which direct users to specific tweets using keywords, and @replies, which allow companies to address a specific user publicly.

In addition to marketing potential, some firms have identified Twitter as a valuable listening tool for gauging trends.

“If two people are having a conversation in a Starbucks about our computers, we can’t listen,” says Dell’s Richard Binhammer. “But we can hear if they are talking online.”

The trick is to sift through the clutter and identify trends, according to Mark Horoszowski of marketing firm Whitespace Healthcare. “We need to listen and understand the noise,” he says. “It’s about harnessing that chatter, re-digesting it and showing what’s meaningful.” There are over 16 million tweets published on Twitter each day.

The site has introduced new tools such as the search function and trending topics list, which displays most talked-about keywords. These tools, augmented by emerging technologies like sentiment analysis, help companies gauge what consumers are saying about products or brands in real-time.

Join in the Conversation

But firms' role in social media goes beyond listening, according to Marriott's Lapierre. "At first we thought our customers just wanted to talk to each other,” she says, “but they were vocal about wanting to hear from us. It’s not a voyeur thing anymore."

Chris Fuller of YUM Brands' Pizza Hut, which recently hired a “twintern,” an intern to manage its Twitter activities, warns firms to be cautious. “You don’t want to be awkward and jump in,” he says. “You have to be able to have a genuine conversation.”

Having a conversation means being able to relate to customers while still advocating a brand.

“It’s a fine line,” says the twintern Alexa Robinson, “You don’t want to come outright and say, ‘We’re offering such and such, the end.’”

She finds a balance through providing a blend of tweets, ranging from “BIG ANNOUNCEMENT TODAY: THE EDGE IS BACK!!! More of your favorite toppings, without the crust! $9.99 for a Medium. Get Excited!” to “Twitter has made it into the dictionary! Does this mean that it can officially be used in a game of Scrabble?”

Fuller insists transparency is key to earning followers’ trust on an intimate site like Twitter. Although Alexa operates on Twitter under an ambiguous corporate voice, most brands explicitly let followers know who is on duty managing the account, including Dell, JetBlue and Pepsi .

The ideal course of action for firms is to diversify their social media strategy, according to Fuller. He says Pizza Hut has “several voices online speaking for the brand.”

The tricky part about talking to users is having a consistent voice. If different voices represent one brand, firms risk customers failing to get a sense of what a brand is all about.

JetBlue, which has 10 employees on Twitter, has tweeted slightly suggestive messages like, “Life's a beach, why not jet to one?” to more family-friendly tweets like, “Thanks—and hope you have a great flight.

Although Fuller says firms need to have a “unified message,” he also insists, “It’s dangerous to give your entire social media strategy to any one person, whether it’s a twintern or full time employee.”