What’s the point of Twitter?

A good articles by Morgan Siler.

The White House, Oprah, CNN and Starbucks all have Twitter accounts and are engaging in the “What are You Doing?” game, but does that mean small business should too? In a word, yes.

Mary Hemlepp’s Local Marketing column, “Get your business on social networks or get left behind”, in the last issue of Business Lexington did a good job of mapping out reasons why businesses should take note of social networks such as Facebook and Linkedin. But if you are still not sold on the Twitter, here is why you might want to take a closer look.

Twitter is the free social networking and micro-blogging service that has been touted by some, including Guy Kawasaki, as “the most powerful marketing tool since T.V.” Twitter allows users to send and receive updates, known as “tweets.” Tweets are limited to 140 characters and function as mini-blog posts, SMS (Short Message Service), or literal answers to the question, “What are you doing?”

Created in 2006, Twitter has gained worldwide popularity and its traction is growing, and not just among 18-34 year olds. According to Quantcast.com, a Web site that measures audience demographics of digital media, more than a third of twitter users are over 35. This spring, Twitter’s traffic reached roughly 6 million unique visitors/month, making it the third most popular social networking site after Facebook and MySpace. Since February of this year, Twitter has seen a growth of 1,382 percent (in part thanks to Oprah, who jumped on board the Twitter train in April and amassed more than 100,000 followers her first day).

It’s clear that Twitter has the sheer eyeballs to make it interesting as a branding platform, especially for large companies, but does it work the same for small- to medium-sized businesses?

What are You Doing?

Twitter’s tagline is “What are you doing?” Literal answers to this question lead many to think Twitter is meaningless chatter. A tweet that says “Walking into Rupp Arena” may only be interesting for others to read if you are John Calipari.

Asking most Twitter-virgins what they think the business benefits are of engaging in the “What are you doing?” game, most profess a skepticism regarding its actual utility and purpose, and return on investment (and by investment, we mean time). “How can telling the world minute by minute what am I doing lead to a sale? If anything, wouldn’t I just be annoying potential customers and clients?” Short answer: not if you do it right.

What the tech-savvy, early adopters know, and what more and more entrepreneurs, brand managers, marketing professionals, and small business owners are finding out, is that playing the game really does matter.

Why? Because the ‘What are you doing?’ game of social media is all about developing relationships and inspiring interaction, which leads to, as many small business owners are discovering, new clients and customers.

Adam Martin, Lexington’s Social Media Club president and small business owner, said, “I personally have developed many relationships and contacts throughout the country and world just by using Twitter. Currently I’m on my third freelance design project from relationships I have built on Twitter alone.”

Twitter as a business tool

There are three elements to using Twitter as a business tool. A good Twitter strategy will incorporate all three and stay true to the brand’s mission. Developing Twitter as an effective business tool means creating a strong voice that represents the company’s brand and also highlights the company’s humanity.

1. Listening/observing. Use the search tool to discover what conversations are already going on about your company and/or industry. Observe how others are using Twitter and make mental notes of best practices. Learn from the “Twitter-Elite” in your area and in your industry.

2. Engaging/dialoguing. This is the being human part, the really fun part. You can actually converse like a friend or colleague and not like a brand manager. Everything you say does not have to point back to you or your company. You can and should respond and engage your followers not only when they are talking to or about you, but when they are saying something you find interesting. It is through the dialoguing that most brand evangelists/enthusiasts are made.

3. Publishing platform. Tweet links back to your company blog or Web site, notifying followers of new blog posts, press releases, promotions, contests, coupons, etc.

Think people, then profits

Social media is evolving the way businesses are choosing to advertise and market their brands. A challenging economy has driven many businesses to go back to the basics and create new strategies centered around customer loyalty.

Where Twitter goes beyond traditional media is interaction — and interaction, when done right, promotes not only customer loyalty, but brand evangelists.

Ron Cecil, principal of Bullhorn, a collaborative marketing agency in Lexington, said Twitter is an essential element of a small business’s marketing strategy and foray into social media: “Using Twitter as a marketing element is about personifying your brand and opening yourself up to a relationship-driven economy.” Social media at large is not about the hard sell, but instead about the development of connections and networks that create the space for brand enthusiasts and loyal, long-term customers/clients.

Consumers today don’t want to be sold to, they want to be “befriended” and “followed” (i.e. listened to and engaged) and businesses that get that are learning to play the ‘What are you doing?’ game genuinely — not for profits, but for people.

Twitter chatter does matter for small business because it gives us new ways to engage potential clients and customers in our brand’s message. Companies not using social media are missing out not only on free publicity and advertising, but on relationship building with their target audience.

Engaging in the “What are you doing?” game is not just for celebrities and big business. It’s for everyone that knows that relationships and interactive networks are the key to successful enterprise.

Morgan Siler is co-creator of Portland-based iHeartSingleParents.com. She is also the owner of Lexington-based Social Media Milk. Contact her at Morgan@SocialMediaMillk.com or on Twitter (@ModernSingleMom), Facebook, and Linkedin.

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