It wasn't the most senior members at the table who were interested in tweeting -- thank goodness, as that would have made me fall off my chair faster than an Applebee's Top Shelf Long Island Iced Tea. Instead, my uncle, an optometrist, had been hearing about Twitter and wondered if he should tweet professionally.
When I answered Uncle Glenn, I brought up a number of factors that he should consider when evaluating the service. I also compared his situation to that of Jeff, my father-in-law, a plastic surgeon in Dallas. Glenn and Jeff have several things in common: small businesses in healthcare targeting older-skewing customers who aren't particularly tech-savvy. There are key differences though, and those are described below.
Here are ten factors Glenn, Jeff, or anyone else should consider when deciding whether to tweet:
Domain squatting: Is there any value for you to register your business name or even real name (if you own your business or are the face of it) as a Twitter user name? I covered this recently, and there are a number of reasons why you should, even if you don't plan to actively use it.
Brand mentions: Is anyone talking about your actual business already? For a small business, this isn't as likely, but you absolutely must check. For this search and others discussed here, use Twitter Search at search.twitter.com. While Twitter offers search functionality on its own site, it's only available to registered users, and Twitter Search is more robust.
Topical mentions: Are people on Twitter discussing topics relevant to your business? For Glenn, this might mean posts about getting glasses. For Jeff, it might be concerns about aging, or about certain products like Botox. These signal opportunities where you can respond and be a resource. I once tweeted about a friend needing a WordPress programmer; the person who responded wasn't following me but was getting alerts for relevant terms, and he wound up with the gig.
Location mentions: If your business is based in or focused on a certain city or region, search Twitter to see what people are saying about it. Then use the advanced search feature to find posts from people based within a certain area. There may be ways to be a resource about your area. You should also run location-specific searches for your brands and relevant topics. The potential reach also matters; Glenn's target is residents within a small radius of Reading (population: 83,000), while Jeff's customers live in and beyond the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, home to one-quarter of all Texans.
Target audience: If there are lots of relevant mentions, click the user names to see if they look like they could be in your target audience. If the volume of tweets is high enough, you'll find a sample of people who are sharing information about themselves, whether from their Twitter profiles, the links to their sites, or what they're talking about.
Competitiveness: How cutthroat is your business? Do you need to do anything and everything to stay ahead? Twitter could be a competitive advantage, or a necessary defensive strategy. Jeff's business is one of those fields where his competitors will shamelessly copy whatever he does, from marketing to innovative surgical procedures and technologies. Glenn's field is toward the other end of the spectrum, where he spends a lot of his time sharing what he knows with his peers. Someone like Jeff is thus more inclined to use Twitter because they have to, while someone in Glenn's situation would use it if they want to.
Sales cycle complexity: How involved is the purchase decision? For Jeff's business, there's a lot of complexity in terms of understanding the procedures and technologies involved. Plus, if anything goes wrong, it will often be very visible to everyone the customer knows. This means Jeff must invest a great deal of energy in making prospective customers feel comfortable with him and his business. With Glenn, trust is no less important, but his customers don't need to conduct as much research online; he'll wind up earning most customers' trust in person.
Purchase frequency: This can vary considerably for both Glenn and Jeff. For Jeff, many customers need to return regularly for maintenance. Glenn, meanwhile, has an opportunity to provide services for the whole family, from eye exams to glasses. How valuable is it to stay top of mind?
Acquisition vs. retention: If most of your business comes from existing customers, then just ask them if they use Twitter and if they'd want to keep in touch with you that way. If you're continually prospecting, then you need to review these other factors.
Bandwidth and resources: Even if your target audience is on Twitter and there are a million reasons to connect with customers there, do you work with anyone who understands Twitter well enough to participate, or can you afford to pay someone else to train you or run your Twitter program?
That's the long answer. The short answer is, "Are your target customers on Twitter, and do you have the resources to reach them?"
Jeff gave these factors a lot of thought and is already tweeting away, even if he's still figuring out the best way to use it (like most everyone else). Glenn will probably hold off unless his Twitter research uncovers surprising results. Both can periodically return to this guide to assess whether Twitter has the potential to help them grow their businesses. Even if it's a little challenging to understand, it's all much easier than figuring out how to eat a riblet.