The first tweet went out on March 21, 2006, when Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey sent a post to seven of his friends. Today, 140 million people around the globe are active users of Twitter, turning to the social media site to share their thoughts and find out what's happening in the world around them, 140 characters at a time.
As of March, the site was processing more than 340 million tweets and 1.6 billion search queries a day from people across all walks of life. Among them are 35 global heads of state, including President Barack Obama (who has nearly 13.2 million followers); the governors of just about every one of the 50 U.S. states; about 80 percent of U.S. senators and Congress members; more than 40 percent of the top global religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama (with 3.85 million followers) and Pope Benedict XVI (who has only 50,000 followers); every team in MLB, the NFL, and the NBA; 99 percent of America's top 200 nonprofits; 87 percent of Billboard's Top 100 musicians; each of the top 50 Nielsen-rated TV shows; and just about every major newsroom.
Twitter has also seen tremendous adoption among consumers looking for real-time access to customer support from companies with which they do business. They're increasingly forgoing traditional customer support channels and tweeting questions or issues with the expectation of an immediate resolution.
"The number is rising as consumers are seeing [Twitter] as a back door to the company without having to jump through hoops or listen to a sales pitch," observes John Hernandez, vice president and general manager of the Customer Collaboration Business Unit at Cisco Systems, which has attracted more than 107,000 followers to its main Twitter page (@CiscoSystems), and also offers a customer support page (@Cisco_Support), which has more than 19,000 followers. "With the time that people are spending on social media these days, they're staying with the companies that engage with them in that channel."
Twitter, itself, has a hard time keeping track of all of the tweets that cross its servers. It's no surprise, then, that many companies looking to engage with consumers on this medium are intimidated by the sheer magnitude of it all. It's really quite simple, though, if you have the right tools and strategies in place.
"One of the nice things about Twitter is that it can be organized fairly easily," says Paul Greenberg, president of The 56 Group, a consulting firm focused on CRM and social CRM. "You can monitor existing hashtags or create your own hashtags where you direct people to make comments about you."
And, contrary to popular belief, you don't even need a Twitter account to monitor the conversations about you on that medium.
A growing number of brands are establishing social media command centers—war rooms from which employees track and respond to customer comments, questions, and complaints on Twitter and other sites. Gatorade was the first with such a facility, opening the Gatorade Mission Control Center inside its Chicago headquarters in June 2010. Using Salesforce.com's Radian6 social media monitoring tool and other technologies from IBM, Gatorade's Mission Control Center isolates tweets that are relevant to Gatorade, including those about its brand and products, competitors, and athletes who have endorsed its sports drinks. The visualizations that Radian6 provides to Gatorade, whose main Twitter page (@Gatorade) has more than 64,000 followers, also offer detailed sentiment analysis and a gauge of how hot the conversations are across the blogosphere.
Dell runs a similar operation at its Round Rock, Tex., headquarters. It launched the Social Media Listening Command Center in December 2010 as an integral part of its @DellCares customer support channel on Twitter. That channel, which has more than 17,000 followers, is staffed by Dell's Social Media Outreach Team from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Radian6 helps the computer manufacturer track more than 22,000 daily posts related to Dell; dissect the data by topic, sentiment, importance, geography, and other variables; share it with colleagues throughout the company; and respond as needed.
Tesco, a big-box retailer that operates nearly 5,400 stores in 14 countries worldwide, has 19 Twitter accounts and a staff of 60 people dedicated exclusively to them.
Other brands with similar operations include Comcast, JetBlue, Bank of America, and Starbucks.
JetBlue started on Twitter in May 2007, and in 2009 launched the Real-Time Recovery Team, made up of 21 customer service employees who monitor Twitter 24/7 and respond to direct queries and complaints. But unlike some of the other organizations, JetBlue's team has other functions beyond Twitter monitoring and response. The Real-Time Recovery Team also handles email inquiries, works with airports to handle delays and cancellations, and even reaches out to JetBlue customers with special needs.
Morgan Johnston, JetBlue's corporate communications manager and social media strategist, says there's a good reason for that. "That the team does not just do Twitter is important. If all they do is Twitter, it's easy to lose sight of what's going on in the rest of the organization," he says. "For our people, the ability to talk about the company as a whole is important."
JetBlue uses ExactTarget's Social Exchange to monitor the 10,000 tweets a week that mention the airline, including those that come into its @JetBlue account. It has 1.67 million followers on Twitter.
"Twitter is the canary in the coal mine for us," Johnston says. "It gives us notice of things we can change, not just for the person who's doing the tweeting but for others around him."
Bank of America, likewise, launched on Twitter in early 2009. Its main customer support account (@BofA_Help) currently has 23,210 followers, and provides assistance to customers from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Bank of America has other accounts for disseminating news and career information and other accounts related to its Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust subsidiaries.
BofA employs a team of about 30 people to handle its social media efforts. "The core of this is obviously our listening capabilities," says Chris Smith, its senior vice president of enterprise social media. "First we want to identify mentions of our name, and then we need to identify the folks that need our assistance."
Phone and email are far and away still the preferred means of reaching out to BofA, according to Smith, but the bank is definitely seeing an uptick in Twitter use by its customers. "We are in social media because that is where our customers are and where they've asked us to be," he says.
Not for Everyone
Setting up huge Twitter monitoring operations like these is only possible—and recommended—for organizations that are large enough to support them. "If you're big enough and getting enough traffic to justify it, you should have a dedicated team," Greenberg says.
For everyone else, there are plenty of ways to find out what's happening on Twitter without having to shell out big bucks or dedicate a lot of resources. There are currently about 150 Web and social media monitoring and analysis tools on the market, which Gartner has identified as a $500 million industry. Many of these tools are free or low-cost and offer varying degrees of information delivered as streaming feeds, email alerts, or as requested.
Which tool is right for an organization and the number of people it dedicates to social media depends on its place within what Cisco calls the Social Media Maturity Model, according to Hernandez. That model is made up of five levels:
1. Listening—basic monitoring with some occasional reporting.
2. Broadcasting—maintaining a presence for basic marketing purposes.
3. Marketing—with some customer engagement, dashboarding, and minimal customer service involvement.
4. Customer Care—with scalable engagement processes, teams working in queues, managed processes, and team activity reports.
5. Proactive Engagement—with integrated customer care, sales, and business intelligence capabilities.
"If you're just doing marketing, you can have a few PR people on board," Hernandez states. More advanced levels might involve marketing, customer service, sales, legal, human resources, and other departments all sharing responsibility, he says.
To make the most of social media monitoring tools, experts recommend taking your Twitter search beyond just your company name. Some other terms might include product names and categories, geographies where your products or services are sold, terms common to your industry, and common issues with which your target audience might struggle. Using the right search terms, a local plumber, for example, might be able to identify people looking for a good plumber in a specific city or area. He might also be able to find the top 10 complaints customers have had with other plumbers in the past and address those items in his marketing efforts.
JetBlue not only monitors Twitter for mentions of the company name but also for airports and terminals that it serves, routes that it flies, other carriers with which it has strategic partnerships, its True Blue loyalty program, and several other keywords.
As companies develop their Twitter strategies, they'll naturally want to keep track of mentions, but they should also include replies, retweets, and hashtags to see where the tweets have gone, how many people might have seen them, and what kind of response they generated from other consumers.
Josh March, CEO and cofounder of Conversocial, a provider of a social media management platform, suggests categorizing tweets as well. "Work out exactly what it is you would like to know," he says, "and then group all messages by the categories that you've defined. This will make it easier to look through and analyze [tweets]."
Given Twitter's global reach, it also makes sense to take monitoring beyond just English, which makes up only about 40 percent of global social media postings.
"More and more, social media users around the world are conversing in their native languages," says Steve Kearns, director of product management at Basis Technology, a provider of translation technologies. "Non–English speakers are rapidly becoming the majority among social media users."
Research from market analyst firm Ovum supports this. The firm found that 32 percent of consumers in developing markets, namely India, China, Russia, and Brazil, use social media for customer service, compared to just 10 percent in more developed economies, namely France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
"They are using social media to ask and respond to questions in communities, as well as to complain about or promote products and services," Aphrodite Brinsmead, a customer interaction analyst at Ovum, points out.
"Relatively few customers, across both emerging and developed countries, are able to resolve their issues using social media tools because enterprises are not yet doing enough to encourage or support them," Brinsmead adds. "Although social media is not yet a mainstream tool for customer service, vendors must help enterprises integrate it within their contact center operations. It makes sense for those in emerging economies to develop better social media and Web self-service capabilities in order to target those consumers who are readily adopting these channels."
More than Monitoring
Listening, though, is only the first step. "There's no point to monitoring what they're saying if you're not going to respond," March says.
Most estimates place the number of brand-related tweets that require some form of corporate response at about 30 percent. At JetBlue, it's even lower. Johnston estimates the number of JetBlue-related tweets that require a corporate response at about 10 percent.
Smith says BofA can see up to 30,000 mentions a day, but less than 20 percent of them typically require some kind of corporate outreach.
Determining which ones require a response and which ones are just "noise" takes some skill and customer service know-how. "You need to understand what the customer is saying and prioritize [it]," says Karine Del Moro, marketing director at Confirmit, a provider of software that enables organizations to conduct customer and employee feedback and market research. "You can't necessarily get to everything that is said about you, but you can identify those that are a priority and get to them first."
One way to do that is to evaluate the influence of the people making the posts. This can be done by looking at the number of followers a person has. Obviously, the more followers he has, the greater the number of people who will read his postings.
Responding to statements made on Twitter can't be haphazard, though. Greenberg suggests that companies clearly define what the employees who monitor Twitter will be empowered to do and say and what the chain of command will be. Other internal protocols should involve standards for response times and the type of responses given to specific types of tweets.
"These are things that have to be established before you launch on Twitter," Greenberg says. "Once you've launched, it's already too late."
Perhaps most important of all these protocols is the time element. As many brands have found, negative tweets can start a trending topic that could quickly go viral—whether the company wants it to or not.
"You might need to respond quickly," Greenberg says. "A slow response time in this channel is much more damaging than in any other."
While modern wisdom might suggest that the faster you respond to a negative customer tweet the better, Conversocial's March says that's not always the case. "People expect a fast response in social, but it's better to be slower and more accurate than to go out too fast and say something wrong," he says.
And then the type of response has to be considered. Cisco's Hernandez warns that an impersonal response can be worse than no response at all.
"People want a response, and they'll get angry if you give them a canned response," he says. "You have to make the response specific to the individual."
Also know that because Twitter is so public, some conversations might be better conducted over other customer service channels, like phone, email, text messaging, or chat. There's nothing wrong with taking a conversation off-line, and that might actually be preferred when private matters are being discussed. This is particularly relevant in the financial services and healthcare industries, but could apply to any interaction where customers have to give personal or account information.
Bank of America, for example, requests that customers with questions about their personal accounts or other confidential matters send a direct message through Twitter with their names and phone numbers. At that point, a BofA employee will follow up personally to discuss the issue in detail. BofA is adamant about never asking customers for their Social Security numbers, account information, passwords, or PINs via Twitter.
It's also a good idea to pull a conversation off Twitter when an issue will take more than 140 characters to resolve, Greenberg says.
"It's challenging to convey the right tone and empathy in 140 characters or less," March adds.
Ashutosh Roy, CEO of eGain, a provider of software for multichannel customer service and knowledge management, offers the following advice: "You can bring them into a chat session or phone conversation with the contact center, but then post the resolution back out to Twitter."
March agrees. "When appropriate, definitely bring it back online, so the resolution and the customer's thanks are public," he says.
It also helps to grasp the most basic rule of Twitter: Those who post are responsible for their own content and for any consequences thereof. The content your company's employees post on your behalf is out there for everyone to see, so employees should only provide content that you are comfortable sharing with others.
To that end, experts recommend having employees attach their initials or some other identifier to their individual Twitter posts. This not only creates an audit trail later on, but also gives the post a personal touch for the customer.
As for the employees themselves, staffing and training shouldn't be an issue. "As long as the agent has good writing skills and cares about your customers, she can be trained in social media norms and etiquette," March argues. "You don't need to start with social media whiz kids."
BofA's team includes not just customer service pros but also employees with backgrounds in marketing, sales, research, statistics, and analytics. Depending on the type of interaction, there are shared responsibilities among all these groups, according to Smith.
JetBlue's Real-Time Recovery Team is made up entirely of customer service experts. That helps to ensure that the customer service consumers receive via Twitter is just as good as what's available via other channels, according to Johnston. "The service you get on social media should be the same that you get at the airport counter or by calling us," he says.
That helps the airline overcome a common perception about Twitter: that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, or in this case, the one who whines the loudest in public gets the most attention. "We look for a consistency of experience," Johnston says. "If your customer service policies are sound, there's no reason to placate someone first just because he's online."
Greenberg agrees. "Twitter should be considered as any other channel," he says. "It's not experimental anymore. Social customer service is here to stay. It's now mature enough to be considered traditional."
And finally, it's universally agreed upon that monitoring Twitter alone is not sufficient. Consumers can also post comments about companies, brands, and products to other sites, including Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Flickr, Tumblr, Yelp, and hundreds of other blogging, wiki, and review sites. Many of these other sites are quite active, and ignoring them could prove detrimental.
Basic Twitter Terminology
Before you begin keeping an eye on the Twittersphere, it will help to learn a few key terms that will need to become a part of your daily Twitter strategy. They include the following:
Direct Message (DM)—These tweets are private between the sender and recipient; they are initiated by placing a "d" before the intended recipient's username.
Hashtag—The # symbol is used to mark keywords or topics in a tweet and direct them toward a select group of followers who subscribe to that feed.
Mention—Mentioning another user in your tweet by including the @ sign followed directly by a username is called a mention. It also refers to tweets in which your username was included.
@Reply—A tweet posted in reply to another user's message, usually posted by clicking the "reply" button next to a tweet in a timeline.
Retweet—As a noun, this refers to a tweet by another user that is forwarded to you by someone you follow; it is often used to spread news or share valuable findings on Twitter. As a verb, it is the act of forwarding another user's tweet to all of your followers.
Twitter Business Best Practices
Build your following, reputation, and customers' trust with these simple practices:
Share. Share photos and behind-the-scenes info about your business. Even better, give a glimpse of developing projects and events. Users come to Twitter to get and share the latest, so give it to them!
Listen. Regularly monitor the comments about your company, brand, and products.
Ask. Ask your followers questions to glean valuable insights and show that you are listening.
Respond. Respond to compliments and feedback in real time.
Reward. Tweet updates about special offers, discounts, and time-sensitive deals.
Demonstrate wider leadership and know-how. Reference articles and links about the bigger picture as it relates to your business.
Champion your stakeholders. Retweet and reply publicly to great tweets posted by your followers and customers.
Establish the right voice. Twitter users tend to prefer a direct, genuine, and of course, likable tone from your business, but think about your "voice" as you tweet. How do you want your business to appear to the Twitter community? (Source: Twitter for Business 101)
News Editor Leonard Klie can be reached at email@example.com.