Keep It Short: Five Ways Businesses Can Leverage Microblogging

Big things often come in small packages. Consider microblogging, the emerging short-message medium offered by such sites as Twitter, Pownce, Plurk and FriendFeed. While these platforms have seen an explosion among users who share thoughts and links, connect with friends and build networks, companies are now starting to jump on board to engage with customers and partners, communicate news in a quick and timely way, and monitor what the world is saying about them.

Some commentators have dismissed the Twitters of the world as places where the self-absorbed waste time writing about the mundane, but many reputable companies don't see it that way. H.R. Block uses Twitter to build its brand by talking taxes with its audience. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has more than 7,000 followers and gives away shoes as part of his Twitter feed.

Such early-adopter companies are showing how to bond with customers and prospects on a new level. But clearly, with a medium in which messages are limited to a 140-word count and can quickly turn judgmental and negative, there are potential downsides.



Here are five ways that companies can leverage microblogging to help their businesses.

1. Monitor your industry and competitors. The most important thing for companies to understand today is that thanks to social media technologies such as blogging and microblogging, conversations about a company and its brand are happening every minute of the day. And they're happening off the radar screen--unless companies are monitoring the landscape. Southwest Airlines has used microblogging to keep an eye on long lines at its airport gates so it can respond and help passengers. Now consider the potential if Southwest were to monitor its competitors' flight delays as well, and react with real-time ticket offers. Monitoring social media to stay on top of the most important and relevant conversations can provide clearly demonstrative ROI.

2. Track conversations about the company and its brand. Given the popularity and utility of social media sources, it's no surprise that brands are being shaped by online consumer interactions, and companies have little control over consumers' influence. In the case of microblogging, negative comments about a company's brand can be particularly damaging because they come in real time, and thanks to the shortness of the message, can be painfully blunt and reach thousands of consumers. Companies are beginning to understand that they need to keep one eye on the blogosphere and the other on microbloggers.

3. Grow sales. Early anecdotal evidence suggests that microblogging, with a disciplined eye on building an audience, can grow revenue. Tony Hsieh may occasionally give away shoes through Twitter, but in doing so he's building loyalty for the brand that will result in additional sales in the future. Dell jumped on Twitter to broadcast closeout sales on product lines. The results reportedly have been $750,000 in sales.

4. Enhance customer service. Microblogging has three core communications components. Posts can be directed at the general audience following a user; they can also be directed at a particular user but read by the general audience. And, lastly, a user can be sent a direct message. The benefit for companies is that a vigilant employee can address a customer's request quickly, directly and personally and educate others following the feed. Comcast's Comcastcares feed on Twitter does precisely this.

5. Expand communications with stakeholders. Companies can use microblogging as a way to distribute short messages that direct readers via URLs to their Web site, blog or other Web sources offering larger chunks of information about the company or relevant news. My colleague Mike Spataro and I write regularly for our company's blog, VisInsights, and we use our company Twitter feed to call out recent posts or links that we think are significant to our story. It's a great way to talk directly to customers, partners, investors and other stakeholders.

While people may argue about which microblogging platform wins, it's really a side debate. The medium is here to stay: according to a recent study sponsored by the University of Maryland--Baltimore County, there are as many as 16,500 posts on Twitter an hour, while the number of Twitter users continues to grow beyond its current two-million mark (July 2008).

In its short existence, microblogging has proven itself to be a powerful platform for people to interact with each other and influence opinion, both positively and negatively. But to take best advantage of the medium, it's important to find a platform that channels the right conversations to the right subject-matter experts for action. Companies have an opportunity at this early stage to embrace the channel, expand their voice and build tighter relationships with their stakeholders ... not to mention stay on top of what the world is saying about them, in 140 characters or less.

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