Let's Be Friends

How I use Twitter for business.

This article was published on October 13, 2009.
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I signed @carbonmade up for Twitter back on March 19, 2008, mainly to protect our trademark. I didn't start tweeting, though, until the second half of 2008. I didn't really get into it daily until 2009, when I realized Twitter could be all about communicating quickly with lots of mentions of your brand. The following is what I learned along the way and the process of how I got there.

@carbonmade

Search Made Things Easy

The difficulty of finding and interacting with followers all changed when Summize was introduced. Summize, for people who don’t know, was the precursor to Twitter Search. Before Summize, I had no way to find @carbonmade members. It was like talking into a void and hoping that someone would hear you.

I caught wind of Summize around a month before Twitter acquired them in July, 2008 and began to use it heavily. Through Search, I could follow prevalent topics around our brand — something I wasn’t able to do earlier. The keywords I mainly followed were "carbonmade" and "online portfolio". I could certainly have searched for other keywords as well, but I focused mainly on these two.

There's always the devilish side of your brain that says you should search out your competitors and interact with people who mention their name, but I could never bring myself to drag them through the mud. I'd rather compete on other things. That said, it is beneficial to scope out what people are saying about the other guys, but I don’t do that obsessively.

Publicizing Your Twitter

I never feel comfortable promoting anything social media-related like our @carbonmade Twitter account until we have a strong presence. Otherwise you potentially scare off customers, because of how small and unestablished you look. It’s one of those reasons I’m against having forums on your website until you’ve got a large userbase, because otherwise it looks barren. (I’m actually against having them at all, but that’s for another article.) But even without promotion, after a period of searching, following, and interacting with our members on Twitter, our account slowly began to grow.

After acquiring several hundred followers, I thought it was time to introduce Twitter to our everyday Carbonmade members who are (1) either on Twitter and haven’t tweeted out the word Carbonmade or (2) haven’t signed up for Twitter yet. The only way to reach these people was to publicize our Twitter account on our blog, link it up directly in our sidebar, and put it in the footer of every email we send out. (I also include a link to our blog in every outgoing e-mail.)

The first two ideas — blogging about it and linking it up directly in your sidebar — are not necessarily novel, but I think my idea of putting a link to Twitter in the bottom of every email is to some extent, at least as recently as early 2009. Your members don’t always read your blog, so it’s hard to ensure that everyone is going to see it in the sidebar. That’s why you have to put it in your outgoing emails, which are typically read all the way through (especially support/sales e-mails). It was around January of 2009 when I thought to do this and I could simply feel the effect it had on our user count (this was before TwitterCounter and similar services).

Timeliness Counts

Even with Twitter Search in place, and being able to go to the website and search for keywords, it was still a cumbersome process that wasn’t very time efficient. You had to search, open up a new window with the person’s tweet, follow them, reply to them, and repeat. Lots of windows and lots of clicks. It consumed an hour a day or more and I was desperately searching for a better solution.

I experimented with the built-in searches through services like CoTweet (web browser), Twitterfon (iPhone), and Tweetie (iPhone). None made this approach simple. I actually handled our Twitter account entirely through Tweetie’s iPhone app for several months, but typing on an iPhone and keeping track of everything that was being said was no picnic.

I began to fall behind on tweets, as we were getting dozens a day, and if I skipped one day then I’d have twice the work to do to catch up. Don’t even think about skipping a Friday and a weekend and trying to catch up with everything on Monday. I’d be looking at a hundred tweets that I’d have to follow and reply to if I did that.

The introduction of Tweetie’s desktop app for the Mac solved all my problems and made things so much simpler. Tweetie allows you to save searches and when you re-open it, you’re automatically placed where you left off. Genius. It made all the difference, as I wouldn’t have to perform a search and scroll down to the person I last replied to.

Now, you should use this method until you’ve reached about 1,000 to 1,500 people following you on Twitter. I suggest you change your practice after your account looks something like "Following: 1,254, Followers: 1,400." At that point what I did was unfollow all people I was following (e.g. 1,254) excluding myself, Dave and Jason — my two business partners — and anyone else who works on or for Carbonmade. Your account will look more authoritative and people are more likely to follow you if your ratio of followers/following is impressive.

No matter what tool you use, and regardless whether you start unfollowing people at around 1,500, the single most important thing to do is to stay on top of tweets. To have any success at all, you need to make this a part of your daily routine, an activity set aside for several times a day. Why? Because these unassuming people who have just tweeted out “carbonmade” don’t know you’re paying attention. So contacting them three days later with a “Hey, John, thanks for using Carbonmade. I hope things are working out well” is far less effective than grabbing their attention within a few hours of their having shared their Carbonmade portfolio with their followers.

Case Study: Paying for Followers

I often debate with friends about the best way to use Twitter for business. One thing we often discuss is whether paying for followers is a smart move or not. Jason Calacanis, CEO of Mahalo, was the first to take the side of “yes” when he proposed paying Twitter $250,000 to be on their Featured User List, which brings in several thousand new followers a day and is hand-selected by the brass at Twitter. While this was mainly for show, Jason had a simple point: The more followers you have, the more people your message will reach — especially with re-tweeting — and this is valuable for any brand.

Paying for followers is a gray area for me as I’ve always been one to play it strictly above-board. So while you’re not hurting anyone by using a service like TwitterCounter to buy advertising space, you are artificially inflating your followers count, which seems somewhat shady to me. The idea behind paying for followers is that the greater your follower count, the easier you’ll be able to accumulate new legitimate followers who see that thousands of people are following you and then conclude that you must be an authoritative source.

You can only debate this for so long before someone tries it in the spirit of research. One of my friends bought $300 worth of advertising on TwitterCounter, which yielded him close to 3,000 new followers — some bots, but others simply new Twitter users looking for accounts to follow. He reported positive results: His follower count is now trending upwards at a greater rate than it ever was before. So I’m hesitant about advising you do this, I do think it’s something to consider seriously.

Case Study: Chat

For the past six months, I’ve been starting impromptu chats with @carbonmade’s followers by tweeting out something like: “Join the party! Chatting still at http://drop.io/carbonmade/chat. Come chat with me and win a free Whoo! upgrade.” Eric Friedman beat me to the punch in discussing why you should talk to your customers and let them talk to each other, using my chats at Carbonmade as his example. He summarized my position well: “Many companies have two way communication via blogs and comments — but there is something powerful about a real time chat where you actually get to interact with the folks behind a business.” Try it out. I think you’ll see positive results as I have.

Case Study: Contests

After many successful months starting chats through Twitter, I got the idea – mainly inspired by SquareSpace’s #squarespace Twitter iPhone challenge earlier this year – to giveaway a free Whoo! upgrade if people completed my sentence. For example, just last week I tweeted out “Tweet out ‘You should sign up for @carbonmade because...’ and win a free Whoo! upgrade. Feel free to be creative about it. ;)” I’ve done this three or four times now and always get great responses. My favorite from last week was by @jfcorcoran tweet that linked to a hilarious Caddyshack video of the infamous gopher: “You should sign up for @carbonmade because it make you feel like this!”

This has the obvious effect of treating your loyal @carbonmade followers to a free prize (an upgraded account), gets their creative juices flowing, and exposes your brand to people on Twitter who follow them but may not have heard of you. Since most people follow and are followed by people who are similar to them, in our case it’s likely that we’re reaching more creative folks who follow these people.

Value

One of peoples’ main gripes about Twitter (at least early on) was that it adds no value to your daily life – and could be seen simply as a procrastination tool. While there may be some truth in that, it’s a lot different for businesses. A clear example of Twitter being exceptionally good for business is what has happened at Dell. Dell reported back in December 2008 that it had made $1 million in revenue through Twitter. And then more recently The New York Times reported that by June 2009, Dell had earned $3 million by this means.

While those figures are larger than your average business is making on Twitter, they should give you an idea of how effective marketing on Twitter can be. For Carbonmade, although it’s more difficult for me to quantify how much we’ve earned, I do know that we’ve signed up a few hundred people who must not have had a clue what Carbonmade was before hearing about us through Twitter. We track all signups from the twitter.com URL in our backend.

Not only are we gaining more users through Twitter, but we’re also interacting with our members in a way that was never previously possible. I spend plenty of time each day — as mentioned previously — replying to people’s questions and interacting with them. This near real-time interaction allows me to be more living presence than a simple e-mail address. This translates into more loyal members, because they see you as more of a person and less of a company.

The final value it adds is the quick snippets of information you can send out that can be re-tweeting to hundreds or thousands of people who may never have heard of your brand. This is easily measured too by following the number of re-tweets your brand gets and will be even further clarified when Twitter releases their new re-tweet mechanics.

Conclusion

If your business is just starting out and is not on Twitter, I understand that this may not be your primary focus. You’ve certainly got more important things to worry about. But as soon as you’ve amassed a fair amount of users and have people to interact with, it’s clearly a must. The constant real-time updates, getting to know your users on a more personal level, and the shaping of your brand are all augmented through Twitter.

Just make sure not to get lazy. As with blogging, you need to keep producing content and interacting with the people that follow you. Keep your activity up and make sure to do it with a smile on your face and treat it like fun, not work. Nobody wants to hear from a corporate Grinch.

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