Guide to Twitter for Marketers

Last week, I gave a talk at Kellogg on Twitter. I wanted to try and help our people understand what it means for them as we graduate and head into business. This post is the content of that talk.

If you’re well into social media already, you might be familiar with a lot of this information already.

If you’re not working in social media but you want to understand how you might be able to use it to help your business and your customers, this post should be useful for you. Unlike Twitter, there is no short version, but I’m always happy to help if you have any questions. Just ping me!

Start here

First – Twitter is probably something you should know a little about now. Here’s Comscore data to April of Twitter versus LinkedIn, NY Times and Digg.

Two more signals of it being mainstream – it’s been on Oprah, and it’s been on the Daily Show. This isn’t a fad, and although it might change, Twitter isn’t going away.

What is it, and how do I use it?

First, go and sign up for an account. To quote:

You can’t understand Twitter, Facebook, or blogging by reading an article in a magazine or a report from your CMO.

George F. Colony
CEO, Forrester

The basic idea is this. You put in a short message of 140 characters or less, which is by default available for anyone to read.

That’s it.

It’s similar to Facebook status messages – except in Facebook, only your friends can see your messages. It’s similar to blogging, except your messages can only be 140 characters long.

At first glance, it’s not a mindblowing concept. But let’s examine more closely why it’s worked out so well.

Why is it so goddamn popular?

One – the messages are 140 characters.

Let’s do a little experiment. Take out a polite email you’ve written recently to someone you don’t know – maybe a request for an informational interview, or an invitation for someone to speak. Now, try and boil it down to 140 characters or less.

Imagine yourself in the position of the person you’re emailing. Of course, it’s nice to get a polite email. But if you’re pushed for time and just trying to absorb information as fast as possible, the 140 character version will probably get the message across faster.

Now consider Generation Y. There are studies knocking around that demonstrate that the attention span of Gen Yers is decreasing. So not only are they getting more information per unit time, but they don’t have the patience to read through an entire article. (Maybe I should just twitter this article out instead? hope u r not gen y)

Two – you get messages in real time.

In tech, we like to keep out eyes open for trends – and there’s one happening right now – real time. To quote:

I have always thought we needed to index the web every second to allow real time search. At first, my team laughed and did not believe me. With Twitter, now they know they have to do it. Not everybody needs sub-second indexing but people are getting pretty excited about realtime.

Larry Page, Google Founder

Twitter is one of the reasons Page is talking this way. You can get a solid idea from Twitter and its surrounding services what users are talking about right now.

Three – you can access it from anywhere.

Twitter is pretty goddamn open with their API. Check it out – if you’re running Mac or Linux, hop on to the command line and type this:


… or this …

curl -u user:password

That’s it – you’ve just queried the Twitter API. If you wanted to, you could recreate the entire twitter user page with calls to the API like the ones you just made. That’s something that makes Twitter different from Facebook. Combine this with some talented developers and great ideas, and some amazing applications like twistori start to appear.

Four – location information.

Most importantly, people have written twitter clients – applications you can use to read and update Twitter – for everything. Multiple iPhone clients, any smartphone, and you can even update via SMS. For some of these clients, the location of the update is included – and location based services are also ramping up right now. How’s that useful for twitter? Check out this demo, which pinpoints where people are twittering about swine flu in the US right now.

What do people actually WRITE on Twitter?

Like Facebook or blogging, people have a whole bunch of stuff to talk about. I’ve put it into four categories.

  • RSS replacement. TechCrunch twitters out 140 character versions of its stories that are quicker to parse than their RSS feed. So, it can replace RSS for a user. An article précis can come from random users as well as the article writer.
  • MLIA. People just tweet about the unimportant details of their lives. I don’t have any data on this, but I believe most tweets fall into this category.
  • Self-promotion. Julia Allison is a great example of this – not particularly being famous for anything except being a minor web celebrity. She’s making the service work to promote herself, and being pretty successful so far.
  • Real celebrities like Oprah, Queen Rania and Shaq, who are using it to build on their existing profiles or promote a cause. Here’s another place where real time works – a Shaq fan get get updates from their idol on exactly what they’re doing right now. That’s bringing fans and celebrities even closer together, and it’s reasonable to expect celebrities that use social media to start to outstrip those who don’t.

Of course, there are users like Sockington the cat that defy categorisation – but I hope these four cover most bases.

One more thing to consider – Patrick Swayze is not dead. Because Twitter users use each other as reference points, information spreads rapidly throughout the network, whether it’s true or not.

How should / shouldn’t my company use Twitter?

What I can do is show you some examples of how people are using it to help you figure it out.

First of all, to quote from a Kellogg study:

There is a measurable connection between what is being said about a product in online posts and real-time customer behavior.

Not shocking news. The interesting part is how Twitter is helping us to peer into those conversations – twitscoop and twends are two tools you might want to use to do so. How’s that useful? Let’s say you’re putting out a superbowl ad. You can use these tools and others to understand immediately how well your campaign is going, and adjust it accordingly.

Now, let’s see two good examples of how companies are using Twitter.

  • Kogi is a Korean barbeque truck that drives around LA, tweets out where it’s going to be, and then shows up to the crowd that’s been following them on Twitter.
  • Threadless, a Chicago based t-shirt design community, twittered an official press release to request tweets that are voted on and made into t-shirts.

These examples work because they lean on Twitter’s strengths – community and real-time. That said, it’s not all roses – you can be a hero or a victim.

Twitter’s mean streak

Skittles decided to take the obvious route, and just replaced their home page with a live Twitter stream next to Facebook, Flickr and Youtube content. Of course, the internet sensed an opportunity for vandalism, and started tweeting rude stuff so it would appear on the home page. They’ve since scaled back to just use their YouTube homepage, where the vast majority of comments are positive, but there’s also these:

  • How is this useful. I’m not buying skittles because of this. Heck, I wouldn’t have heard of this without ZD NET social media fails
  • wtf is this
  • i love sex !

Using social media marketing means asking your customers to speak for you, and that’s risky. First time around, Skittles gambled and lost.

Here’s another. Consider the example of Motrin, which is a painkiller. They put out this ad:

Some influential folk in the twitter community took pretty serious offence to the ad. The result?

So – there you have influential people in social media killing off hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment. Gone!

Can’t I just pay to get buzz?

It might be tempting to employ people to try and control that conversation and mitigate the risk, and that’s just what companies like Izea do (although the FTC may have something to say about it). Here’s their side of the story.

In my opinion, one should resist this temptation. An employee at Belkin famously tried this, paying people a small amount to write positive reviews of their products on That didn’t turn out to be good PR for anyone, and the employee was hung out to dry by Belkin.

Granted, Izea argues that “sponsored conversations” should be marked as such, but it doesn’t sit well with me. People participating in this are advertising to their friends, and one of the reasons why social media and word of mouth advertising is so effective is that people trust their friends to give them an unbiased opinion. Directly influencing the conversation with money or something similar breaks that trust.

So, what the hell do we do?

This is the most interesting part of this whole deal. There is no solution for everyone. The effectiveness of old school media is drying up. It’s problematic to influence the conversation directly. We just have to come up with clever solutions, like others have, and accept that the days of throwing money at a media plan are dying out.





6 responses to “Guide to Twitter for Marketers”

  1. Alvin L

    Hey Shahid, interest article. A couple of items:

    1) looks like the URL to the Kellogg Insight article correlating online conversations to buzz is broken

    2) Everybody is saying that the efficacy of traditional media is dying – while i don’t dispute it, are there any studies out there that can prove this point?

  2. Well-rounded article.

    We’re experimenting with Twitter to ‘trail forward’ ticket and parking availability, and travel updates in the run up to our next open day in June.

    We only went live this week so not many followers but will keep you updated!

  3. Brilliant.
    As always.
    Thank you for putting this up.
    I was really bummed out that I missed your session.
    This makes up for it.
    a little anyway.

  4. Shahid – excellent post on Twitter. Thanks for putting it up.

  5. Francisco Sanchez

    Thanks Shahid! The article is very clarifying.

  6. Thanks Shahid on sharing your know how on Twendz and Twitscoop. Will be using them soon.

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