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Cutting through the noise: The Twitter marketing masterclass

2nd Feb 2015
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Twitter’s recent usage statistics may illustrate the complexity marketers face in trying to get their message across to current and potential audiences, but they also highlight the opportunities that await those that manage to cut through the noise on what is the world’s second-most active social network.

There are now more than 300 million monthly active Twitter users, with over 500 million Tweets sent every day. On 3rd August 2013, Twitter experienced a record of 143,000 Tweets per second (TSP), when users in Japan took to the social network in their droves to discuss the first public airing of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1986 animated adventure film, Castle in the Sky. Yes –  this may highlight Twitter’s challenges in being spontaneous, sporadic, instantaneous and whole-heartedly a la mode; but it’s these factors combined that also make it such a playground for marketers.

“Twitter has created a changed arena for both brands and their customers,” says William Buist, founder of Societal Web. “Customers have been enfranchised by Twitter: the cost of engaging in a conversation with a brand, talking about a brand, whether they’re listening or not, is effectively zero, but that’s not what changes the game. What changes the game is reach.

“Individuals can command audiences of thousands and a complaint about a brand which might have been raised in the pub on a Friday night with three or four friends is now being raised on Twitter with three or four thousand followers, all of whom can be influenced by the messages that are sent. Brands recognise the risks that they run by not engaging in those conversations. However, they also run risks by engaging in them without an appropriate plan.”

Getting engaged

It’s widely accepted that marketing on Twitter requires some level of strategic discussion; irrespective of the recent statistics suggesting up to 20% of all businesses have no social media strategy in place. However, even with some form of process, many organisations still fail to grapple with the basic formula required to start engaging appropriately with an audience on the platform.   

In the 'Putting the 'social' into social media' whitepaper, Wildfire PR suggests the following action plan for any marketer looking to go back-to-basics with their strategy:

1. Don't be cryptic: With only 140 characters at your disposal, it's often tricky to get ideas across, but being clear and concise is crucial in keeping your followers engaged.

2. Give followers a reason to click your link: Include a link in your tweets whenever possible and keep your tweets interesting to encourage click-throughs.

3. Convey your personality through your tweets: Don't be afraid to use a lighter tone on Twitter. The more approachable you are, the more likely you are to build relationships with your followers.

4. Create lists of key people in your industry or useful contacts: Use Twitter Lists to put together useful groups of relevant people. This will help you build links with these influencers and will also act as a useful resource for your followers.

5. Respond to replies quickly: if someone directs a message at you on Twitter, do your best to respond as quickly as possible. Even you don’t know the answer or need to find more information, you can still set expectations.

6. Link Twitter to your web analytics service: Use web analytics to identify what drives traffic and how effective or likely this traffic is to convert.

7. Retweet interesting content: Embrace your community and if one of your followers tweets something interesting, retweet it to your followers. Add a comment for extra points!

8. Ask questions: One of the best ways to encourage engagement with your followers is by asking questions. Why not get feedback on your latest product or ask for content ideas for your blog?

9. Be flexible, don't just tweet about the same thing: The best brands on Twitter provide a good balance of different tweets – some serious and some promotional, but others that are lighter in tone and give a more human side to the company.

10. Pimp your profile by using your company colours and putting together a bespoke background: Keep your Twitter profile consistent with your company branding to make it feel more credible.

While some of these pointers may seem obvious, falling foul of any one of them can leave a brand looking amateur, or their communications hackneyed. To avoid appearing like one of the social network’s 8.5% automated users, marketing on Twitter requires authenticity and a fluid approach.  

“Tone, content and language should all be tailored according to whether the recipient is a customer, a prospect, a fan or a detractor – using a universal approach will only alienate people further,” says Simon Quance, head of social media strategy at 20:20.

“The key is to listen to what is being said, and by whom, and then ensure that the response acknowledges their position and their view, even if the response contradicts this position.  Brands should think of such exchanges as mini business meetings – they would never go into a meeting with a 'one fits all' solution or without preparing their material to suit their audience, so why should the approach to social media conversations be any different?”

Ear to the ground

‘Listening’, or monitoring on Twitter can be as crude as simply ensuring you respond and involve yourself in discussions around certain topics your brand has a focus on. However, with Twitter being an open platform, there is an array of social listening tools available to marketers, with each helping to provide a more sophisticated approach to monitoring activity on the social network.

Monitoring tools can help brands keep up with trends and topics relevant to their industry and audience, but they also help marketers to gauge when to deliver appropriate messaging, and when to involve themselves in conversations.

Kate Cooper, CEO of Bloom Worldwide suggests the following checklist for ensuring marketers benefit from any social monitoring tools they invest in and apply to Twitter:

•        Monitor conversations about your brand, products and competitors
•        Monitor the volume of mentions of a particular topic or brand
•        Discover the sentiment of conversation about your brand: see what customers really think of you
•        Provide top notch customer service, swooping in to save the day whenever someone is having an issue with one of your products, even if they don’t come to you directly for help
•        Identify influencers and brand advocates in your industry
•        Carry out customer research and find valuable brand insights

“If you’re using social media as a marketing channel for your brand, using a listening tool to monitor conversation is a must, helping you to find and engage with existing and potential customers rather than simply talking to an empty room,” Cooper adds.

“Even if you’re not active on a social media platform, seeing what users are saying about you can provide valuable insights, especially when launching a new product or service.”

Cooper lists Socialmention, Hootsuite, Synthesio, Sysomos, Topsy and Brandwatch as entry-level tools marketers could consider.    

Hashtag dilemmas

Of course, Twitter’s hazards are plentiful, and one of the dangers of social media monitoring is that the process encourages brands to be more reactive, more risqué and more instantaneous in their attempts to jump on a topic before other brands get there. And at no point is this more apparent than when dealing with the dreaded hashtag.

As easy as it might be to dismiss the hashtag dilemma on Twitter, brands continue to fall into the trap of making rudimentary mistakes around the terms they select as hashtags in their tweets. Just ask McDonalds, DiGiorno Pizza or Susan Boyle, to name but a few. 

“The hashtag has great potential as a marketing tool for businesses of all sizes,” says social media consultant, Scott Dylan. “A great example of this is the ‘#SmallBusinessSaturday’ hashtag which was created by American Express; it helped owners to share insights about small business management, and collated the results in one easily accessible place, whilst also proving an invaluable promotional tool for all of the businesses which got a mention.

“One of the best ways to use hashtags is to use them in conjunction with some kind of promotion. Advertising company Radium discovered in a survey that 51% of those who responded to a survey were more willing to share company hashtags if they were awarded some form of discount or a chance to enter a prize draw as a result.

“These sorts of campaigns are prevalent on Twitter, and also on emerging networks such as Instagram and Pinterest, where users tag a company name in their tweet and are entered into a competition. The benefits are twofold; all of the followers of each entrant is exposed to the company hashtag and brand, and the business running the promotion can use the hashtag to keep track of all of their entrants as well as engaging in ongoing marketing.”    

Hashtags also completely open conversations that can be reliably tracked and followed. Whether conversing with other companies about strategies and past experiences, or interacting with clients and prospective customers about a brand-specific subject, starting up a hashtag invites people to get involved in a debate and engage with a certain dialogue.

However, Dylan gives the following advice to brands looking to create campaigns around hashtagging: “Hashtags should also be used sparingly. Companies hashtagging every other word in their tweets, or creating #incrediblylonghashtagswhicharehardtoread can project a sense that they are not entirely sure of their own social networking abilities, and have not researched how to use the networks to their highest potential. Potential customers will quite quickly realise that the business hasn’t fully embraced modern technology, and might be tempted to look to a more technologically advanced competitor.

“Despite these warnings, Twitter is awash with examples of great hashtagging practice by businesses. Domino’s Pizza once encouraged their followers to add #letsdolunch to their tweets. Once the number of tweets hit 85,000, Domino’s dropped their prices significantly for the lunchtime period of that day, giving customers a reward for their engagement in the promotion.”

Social commerce

As Twitter experiments with ways to make itself more profitable, several new commercial initiatives are being opened up that lend themselves well to marketing on the social network.

The first, although still in testing, is one that many marketers with any ecommerce presence should almost certainly start planning for now – the ‘Buy’ button, and the brave new world of social commerce.

“Social media’s maturation into a commerce platform is occurring rapidly and opening up huge opportunities for brands,” says Kevin Bobowski, vice president of marketing at Offerpop, and a frequent commentator on social commerce.  

“A platform that many brands previously used only for engagement is evolving into an end-to-end solution that empowers brands to connect with, engage and sell to consumers in one seamless social experience.”

While Facebook was the first social network to try out new retail opportunities through its platform, the expectation around what Twitter’s ‘Buy’ button will do for marketers is arguably far greater, as Mark Brill, senior lecturer in future media at Birmingham City University explains: “From a brand perspective, the buy button will be very attractive. Many global brands are looking to reach large audiences, and Twitter will enable them to do that. The 'buy' button can reduce user friction and make purchases seamless. The greatest opportunity for Twitter though is that of immediacy - things like event tickets or timed sales seem ideal for the 'buy' button.

“On the downside, Twitter will need to get the user buy-in. Whereas a user might go to Amazon, eBay or even Pinterest to look at products or services, is that why they are on Twitter? Currently the channel is about conversations, comments and sharing, not products. The big question is whether users will accept the button.”

How marketers are able to weave their communications from conversation to sale in a transparent and authentic manner will be vital to reaping the potential rewards of social commerce.  


Another opportunity beginning to glean results for marketers on Twitter is the multiscreening habits of its users, especially in the UK and US where the fusion of TV and Twitter on mobile devices appears to be delivering something of a sweetspot for the brands savvy enough to involve themselves in conversations revolving around important TV moments.

Research from Twitter and Thinkbox found many recent examples of major Twitter activity around TV, including the 2014 BRIT Awards, which saw a vast volume of Twitter conversation with 4.2 million Tweets about the show. It also found that marketers ‘locking together’ the combination of TV and Twitter could expect to be five times more effective at driving positive responses than either channel on its own.

What this means, UK MD of Twitter, Bruce Daisley explains, is that there is a symbiotic effect between the two channels, so “when tweets go up, viewing [of the related TV show] goes up... and when the viewing of a show goes up, we see evidence of tweets going up as well.”

Daisley suggests there are three ways to get closer to the online conversation through combining Twitter and TV:   

1. Integration – Aligning your brand and campaigns seamlessly across Twitter and TV with fully integrated content and targeting. Hashtags are particularly important in this approach; three-quarters of users look up a tweet when they see it advertised. As a result, TV ads which feature hashtags drive 42% more conversation than those which don’t.  

2. Anticipation – Thinking strategically about content and interacting with it in an authentic way at the right moments. It’s worth noting here that different types of TV shows have different social rhythms which determine the points at which people tweet, meaning brands must choose their moment carefully. So, advertisers need to understand how broadcasted content works in order to anticipate activity and capitalise on prime moments.

3. Association – If your brand isn’t on TV, or if a campaign has come to an end, you can still engage your audience on Twitter by capitalising on trending TV moments. Find where the conversation is happening and get amongst it.

Social etiquette

While Twitter clearly offers new and unique prospects for advertising and promotion, marketers must always bear in mind the importance of adhering to what William Buist calls ‘social etiquette’, a complex and occasionally murky area where the rules aren’t always pre-defined.

Buist suggests, as a final point, the best way of protecting your brand against the etiquette backlash is to, firstly, have some form of planning and editorial process in place for tweeting, even if it means rereading tweets a few times to ensure the message isn’t unintentionally offending, and secondly, to ensure your brand appears transparent at all times, even when mistakes are made:     

“The backlash from failing to follow social media etiquette can be disastrous; the list of brands who have got it wrong (Dell, Habitat, Dr Pepper) is both long and achingly familiar,” he says. 

“The difference between a customer service problem offline and one which occurs in a social media environment is the sheer scale; there is nowhere to hide online and the viral nature of the channels mean that bad news not only spreads like wildfire but also lasts forever. There is no use in trying to cover up negativity; any attempts to quash, hide or delete unflattering comments will be spotted by eagle-eyed users and will only add insult to injury.

“The only way that brands can recover from such a disaster is by their response; Dell and Dominos Pizzas are good examples of how a bad reputation can be turned around through investing heavily in a focused social media strategy.”

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