What Twitter Can Really Do For Companies

I’ve been on Twitter for almost two years now. I joined in May 2007 and I’m still not quite sure what impact using the social media service has for me or for the brand I’m promoting, Cars.com’s blog KickingTires, and indirectly Dave Thomas the social media professional (quickly becoming the most misused job description ever).

As far as I can tell, there is no way for anyone to figure that out. There is no one metric that accurately shows how influential you may be or if you’re generating traffic, brand awareness, etc.

Yes, there are some fun sites that determine how awesome you are by factoring how many people follow you and how many updates you have. However, does that really translate to anything important?

For the record:
I have 582 followers
I’m following 244 others
And I’ve updated my feed 1,723 times. Or roughly 2.5 times a day since I joined.
My twitterrank is 109.21 (approx. 89.98 percentile)
381st Twitterholic ranking for Chicago

Has all this increased traffic to KickingTires? Not really. Sure, we get links from time to time coming from Twitter but nothing compared to getting a link on another major blog or a mention in a major media outlet like the Wall Street Journal.

Why am I blogging about this now? Because, recently I’ve seen a ton of people promoting themselves as social media experts and one site even selling a service to get your brand on Twitter. That clearly won’t work in such a savvy environment as Twitter. Automated RSS Twitter accounts have dropped off considerably because they’re not as popular for the type of person on Twitter.

What do I use Twitter for?

It is a tremendously convenient news gathering tool. Not only do I follow many automotive PR representatives but other journalists and websites so that when news breaks I see it on Twitter from a number of reliable sources pretty much instantly. RSS feeds and readers can accomplish this too, but the big deal for me is that word “reliable” as I select the folks I follow. That’s also why I keep the number of people I follow overall quite small when compared to how many people follow me.

Brand Building

In general I’ve found the people on Twitter to be of a certain educational background that filters out a lot of the wasted comments you find on a YouTube or MySpace. Because of the selective nature of the follow aspect, you can really cut out the dreck. That means if a person needs help with a car purchase or has a car question, it’s an intelligent exchange and hopefully they remember a guy from Cars.com is answering them.

Less Dreck, Less Time Wasting

Since I’ve been monitoring comments on blogs for years, this is my favorite part of the Twitter experience. While a lot of Tweets are not useful at all, the way the service works keeps everything moving so quickly, an interesting tweet is usually only a page refresh away. The @replies tab makes sure you don’t miss anyone trying to reach you and Twitter Search is a powerful research tool.

Celebrity Stalking

This isn’t even what I would consider a secondary use for me, it’s just an extremely interesting part of the Twitterverse. From Shaq to U.S. Senators, many real celebs are on Twitter. As someone who has interviewed countless “famous” musicians over the years, I got over the fame factor long, long ago. But there’s something really intriguing about what Twitter allows.

When Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore started Tweeting it was beyond surreal. Not because I am a reader of US Weekly and drool over the rich and famous, but because Twitter could effectively destroy celebrity publications. These are real celebrities posting from their own lives how much and when they want, which offers much better access than a TMZ or Star.

Who do I follow? Well the couple above, simply because they’re groundbreaking. Karl Rove just because it’s akin to following Darth Vader, but scarier. Quest Love from the Roots. And Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction fame who actually has responded to my replies a few times about his car and what time he wakes up. That of course made me giddy and is a type of interaction that I’ve never experienced online in such a way.

Again, I’m not impressed with meeting musicians, I don’t collect autographs, etc. But having the same interaction I have with dozens of personal friends with an actual guitar hero was quite astounding.

Why do I mention this? Because the celebrity factor could lead to more users coming to Twitter as an entertainment option, just like deciding to read an US Weekly or Star magazine.

What Else Could YOU Use Twitter For?

Customer Service
Many companies have taken to Twitter to answer customer complaints about their service or products. Online stores like Zappos and the online TV network Hulu are forerunners in this department. Why would you want to tackle customer service publicly? Because searching Twitter is a very powerful way to find information.

Think of Google. When you go search on Google today the chances of finding relevant information for a term like “Joe’s Sub Shop” is slim. You might get locations, maps, Yelp reviews etc. On Twitter you get comments from real people voicing their opinions. It might be as simple as “Had the greatest sub ever at Joe’s Sub Shop for lunch.” Or “Had the worst sub ever at Joe’s Sub Shop. Don’t go there!”

That second Tween is the type of thing you want to respond to immediately. The shop owner could offer to fix the problem with an apology and likely a coupon offer or some other gratis item.

Promotion

This is by far the trickiest part of Twitter. Like the early bloggers before it, Twitter users do not want to be sold or advertised to when on Twitter. Even though it is a free service, users expect a hassle free environment. But because users choose who they follow there is nothing wrong with promoting yourself.

A good example would be if you’re a local business owner and want to establish more roots in the area. Search for your company’s name. Then see how many comments about your company were from your area, especially if you’re a franchise. Follow those people. Messages you could send out could be “Special Sandwich of the Day: Chicken w/Portabella and Swiss $3.99.” People following you are already interested in your products and will not be offended. Of course you want to keep these updates to a minimum and always be useful.   

How Much Time Does it Take

Twitter requires daily upkeep. You cannot just leave an account alone for days or weeks on end. You don’t need to spend hours with it every day, but a morning and afternoon Tweet and check of @replies, direct messages and search would be the least amount of effort I would recommend.

Making the Call

If you are a company and think Twitter is some magical land where your brand will catch on fire, you are sorely mistaken. Be aware of how it works, who is on it and why you should or shouldn’t spend time there yourself. To date, I have not witnessed any astounding success stories via Twitter placements and at this stage, if it hasn't happened yet, it's likely it won't. However, if building a Twitter following can add a few extra sales a day and that makes a difference for your company, it is worth exploring.