Panelists from companies including Six Flags, Dunkin' Donuts, and Comcast who were gathered at the OMMA Social conference highlighted Twitter's versatility as a marketing and customer service tool as well as its value in letting big brands connect informally with consumers.
"We learned very quickly it's about individuals. It's really about that personal interaction" said Frank Eliason, director of digital care at Comcast, of Twitter. He drew hearty laughter when he described the cable giant as being known for its customer service. "I can't wait until people stop laughing at that joke," added Eliason, who oversees a team of 10 that tracks Twitter and thousands of other social sites and blogs on behalf of the cable giant.
David Puner, communications manager for Dunkin' Brands Inc. -- better known by his Twitter handle, Dunkin' Dave -- has become the human face, or voice, of Dunkin' Donuts. Puner explained that the company, which now has 26,000 followers on Twitter, began experimenting with the service because people were already talking about the brand online. "We've seen it grow considerably since, and that's been nice," he said.
His frequent tweets give people a connection to an "authentic voice" inside the company. But that direct interaction with consumers requires Dunkin' Donuts and other large companies to loosen up their usual standards for corporate communications. "With Twitter and social media in general, there really aren't any rules yet. It's still defining itself," he said. "You need to trust the one who tweets," he said.
Billy Custer, social media agent for Six Flags, went even farther. "A certain amount of immaturity is even encouraged," he offered, acknowledging that he wasn't that far removed in age from the teens who flock to Six Flags' amusement parks and are active Twitterers. He went on to describe how the company has had success using Twitter for promotions like Funnel Cake Fridays, Twitter-directed treasure hunts, and ticket giveaways.
A big part of Twitter's appeal for brands is getting instant feedback on things like product launches or external developments they need to know about quickly. "You can kill the focus group," declared Custer, alluding to Twitter's ability to constantly take the pulse of consumer sentiment.
Puner agreed, saying that Dunkin' Donuts could use Twitter to ask whether followers like its new breakfast wrap and "get 30 people instantly telling you yes or no."
In that regard, Eliason stressed the importance of Twitter search to track the social conversation for any relevant news affecting Comcast. That paid off recently in helping the company learn quickly of a local power outage that cut off Fox Sports Net's broadcast of a first-round playoff game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers.
Eliason said that within three minutes, Comcast knew the outage was caused by a lightning strike and not the result of an engineering problem, saving the cable provider time and resources. "Twitter search is your friend and can add huge benefits to a company," he said.
Asked about the difference between Facebook and Twitter, panelists seemed to agree that Twitter is more open and faster for gauging consumer feedback. Dunkin' Donuts' Puner noted that the company had pulled back on the frequency of posting status updates on Facebook because members weren't especially receptive. "People on Twitter expect to hear from you. People on Facebook don't necessarily want to hear from you," he said.
Eliason also pointed out that unlike Twitter, Facebook doesn't offer the ability to search status updates. However, Facebook last week said it had begun testing a real-time search engine for users' news feeds that could ultimately serve as a rival to Twitter search. The step is a tacit acknowledgement that Twitter has become the default place for searching real-time information online.
On a separate panel, Don Steele, vice president for digital marketing at the MTV Networks Entertainment Group, expressed concern about whether brands and agencies have become too infatuated with Twitter as the "shiny new toy" of social media. "We're making sure we're not ignoring audiences and communities we've already built" on Facebook and other social properties, he said.