To determine how Fortune 50 companies are using Twitter to interact with customers, digital agency IQ went undercover as an ordinary consumer posing questions to brands via their Twitter accounts.
The experiment involved IQ social media strategist Sarah McFather tweeting straightforward customer service inquiries tailored to a company's product or service. For example, asking AT&T when the next iPhone was coming out, asking GE for energy-saving suggestions, or Bank of America about whether the bank should be notified of a customer's international travel so their credit card will not get denied.
The idea was not to see whether corporate Twitter hands could answer tough questions, but to find out if they would engage in a conversation at all, according to the agency's report.
The results? HP, UPS, Wells Fargo and GM stood out as top-performing brands, according to five best practices that IQ gleaned from the study: clearly labeling the purpose of a Twitter account; clearly identifying who is replying to a question; keeping the tone light and friendly; making sure you respond; and responding quickly.
Of the 50 companies, IQ did not send tweets to 16 because the agency couldn't find a Twitter account, couldn't find an account that seemed credible, or the Twitter accounts it did find were too specific in their topics. IBM, for instance, has multiple, narrowly focused Twitter accounts, but not a single broad category for customer service. IQ noted that the @IBM Twitter account is password-protected and has just two followers.
Of the remaining 34 companies, 23 responded to McFather's tweets. Among the 11 that didn't: Boeing, Exxon Mobile, Home Depot, Walgreens and Wal-Mart. The fastest to reply were GM, UPS and Best Buy -- getting back in 2,3 and 4 minutes, respectively. (Best Buy has previously gained recognition for its Twelpforce customer service page on Twitter.) These companies also quickly redirected messages sent to the incorrect accounts for customer service.
The IQ report warned that waiting a couple of days to answer a tweet, especially from a disgruntled customer, could mean losing that customer. It pointed to software tools from vendors such as Radian6 and Lithium that can automatically notify a company when a negative tweet comes in. "Not listening or providing no positive response can be risky and downright lethal to a brand," according to the agency. Then again, some brands don't even have Twitter accounts.
The study found most Twitter responses had a friendly tone, but some were more personalized than others. Still others made it clear that an individual was writing the message, but on behalf of the company. In that hybrid style was this response from Wells Fargo: "Hi George here from @Ask_WellsFargo. Yes pls call our support team at (800) 869-3557 & inform them. Follow/msg us if u have ?s ^GM"
"Simply varying the tone or degree of personalization in a response can change the brand impression completely," said McFather. IQ also cited Wells Fargo rival Bank of America as one of the best brands at clearly labeling Twitter pages designated for customer service to avoid confusion among multiple accounts.
At least some of the brands covered in the study, including UPS and Wells Fargo, are also IQ clients. Even if the agency didn't give these brands any advance notice of its Twitter test, its relationship with the companies should be taken into account in considering the findings.