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Businesses dip toes into online networking pools

Sun., Oct. 11, 2009

Nick Lawhead of Desautel Hege Communications leads a working lunch discussion and training on social networking with members of the Kalispel Tribe on Sept. 21. From left are Rick Connacher and April Pierre of the Kalispel Tribe, Lawhead, Sara Desautel of Desautel Hege, and Jane Baker of the Kalispel Tribe. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)
Nick Lawhead of Desautel Hege Communications leads a working lunch discussion and training on social networking with members of the Kalispel Tribe on Sept. 21. From left are Rick Connacher and April Pierre of the Kalispel Tribe, Lawhead, Sara Desautel of Desautel Hege, and Jane Baker of the Kalispel Tribe. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)

Matt Paschall, a marketing specialist at Spokane electronics retailer OneCall, spends less than 30 minutes a day sending messages to the company’s Twitter followers. The short messages, sent as “tweets” of 140 characters or less, mention good deals on discounted electronics product.

The messages also point people to other sites that offer tips and guidelines for the latest digital consumer products.

OneCall is one of dozens of area businesses that have joined the business community using Twitter, a free online service that has become a wildly popular Web and mobile-phone activity. For every active Twitter-using company in this area, one can easily find dozens more looking for guidance about how to use it effectively.

In the Twitterverse, people follow others users – who range from business or marketing gurus and athletes to authors, TV stars and presidents of universities. Many Twitter users pound out several tweets a day.

Depending on the number of Twitter users one follows, the result is either a steady stream of short messages, or just a few messages a day. Many messages, while quick and to the point, include a link to longer or more complete information found on a company Web site or a blog.

For companies using Twitter to promote its products or sharpen its image, Twitter works best when messages sent into the Twitter community are repeated, or “retweeted”: sent out again to reach a larger audience.

The result is viral marketing, the online world’s equivalent for quick-spreading word-of-mouth advertising.

While individual users are tweeting about cool videos, meetings or events they’re about to attend, businesses using Twitter typically post messages about new products, recent trends, discounts being offered or online stories that mention a company product or service.

Companies like Dell and Starbucks have pushed hard to become leading examples of Twitter-savvy companies.

Alaska Airlines has more than 12,000 followers and is another leader in the Twitter marketing effort. It posts ongoing tweets including tips for finding cheaper fares and updates on weather conditions for travelers.

Online marketing company estimates about 60 million people globally have signed up for Twitter accounts. The same firm said there were 24 million accounts in the United States.

A year ago the buzz in the advertising world was all about using Facebook and other Web 2.0 sites, such as Linked In. Today the focus has shifted dramatically to Twitter as a necessary component of nearly every firm’s marketing toolbox.

OneCall’s Paschall is among those who agree that using Twitter is fast, easy and far-reaching. But like many others in the Web marketing community, he has no way of measuring Twitter’s impact on consumers.

“Most of the people who follow us on Twitter are from right around Spokane. Some buy products, but some just want to ask a question,” Paschall said.

He said it’s unlikely that Twitter – still an evolving online tool – will disrupt OneCall’s reliance on standard advertising and direct e-mail messages to customers and potential buyers.

“We use Twitter because it’s free, it’s simple to use and it reaches people,” Paschall said. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess if Twitter or Facebook will revise online marketing, he added.

Spokane retailer Mountain Gear has a Twitter account but is choosing not to use it. Company founder and President Paul Fish said he’s trying to decide if and when to take his company inside the Twitter tent.

“The social media, just like mobile commerce, are good places to tread,” Fish said. “We’ll be there eventually.”

For now he’s holding back. He created a MoutainGearDOD Twitter name, standing for Mountain Gear Deal of the Day. It has one posted message, from several months ago.

Like many retailers, Fish will not embark on regular use of Twitter, Facebook and other online media until he’s sure he can do it correctly.

He said he’s concerned that messages to followers of his business could produce a backlash to too many sales-based pitches.

“If it helped me get a couple sales but irritated everyone else, I’m not sure that’s the right thing for a business to do,” Fish said.

While Mountain Gear remains on the social media sidelines, other area companies are jumping into the Twitter stream every day. One way to track accounts created by area companies on Twitter is to use the site and search for “Spokane” or “Coeur d’Alene” firms.

Another area group, the Kalispel Tribe, is looking at how it can best take advantage of Twitter, said April Pierre, the tribe’s communications manager.

She attended a recent Twitter Brown Bag, hosted by Desautel Hege Communications, a Spokane advertising and marketing firm. She hasn’t yet created a tribe Twitter account but expects that to happen before long.

“We definitely want to have a strategic plan in place before we do that,” Pierre said.

Unlike a retail or service-focused business, she considers Twitter a communication tool first.

The simplicity and brevity of Twitter might be a good way to improve its dealings with tribal members, community groups and with its customers, Pierre said.

Communicating with customers is a large focus for many service companies. Avista Utilities has a designated Dan_at_Avista Twitter account, managed by communications manager Dan Kolbet. Kolbet looks for any tweets that mention Avista, then offers that user answers or a suggested solution if they’re dealing with an issue.

With the onset of cold weather, Kolbet will push out tweets that link to Avista online information about weatherization or energy efficiency.

Taste Cafe, a trendy downtown eatery, also uses Twitter effectively, offering tweets that tell followers how to get a special deal that day. It offers giveaways for followers who retweet a specific message.

Jennifer Gehrt, a co-founder of Seattle-based Communique PR, has tracked businesses using Twitter and concludes some companies are better off waiting before launching a marketing plan in social media.

Unless the company makes a solid commitment to Twitter, and gives responsibility for tweeting to one or two designated workers, company managers should wait and rethink their strategy, she said. It’s also a key that the company form a clear notion of the topics it will discuss, rather than to generate frequent but hardly relevant messages, Gehrt said.

She also advises companies to get involved, if for no other reason than to hear what other Twitter users are saying about the company.

Gehrt said the concern expressed by Fish at Mountain Gear, about adding more noise than meaning through Twitter, is worth considering. At the same time, users of Twitter know they can easily “unfollow” a merchant if they regard the messages as spam. “That gives the consumer the power in that relationship,” Gehrt said.

She also suggested that uncertain merchants remember that consumers ultimately want messages that add value and offer useful information. Deals of the day may not fall into that category, said Gehrt.

Gehrt and others in the media arena say effective businesses have discovered Twitter helps build a stronger bond with their customers.

She pointed to two recent instances in Seattle, where the Woodland Zoo posted tweets about changes in winter hours and relocations of animals. It asked for its followers to offer feedback, positive or negative.

“Twitter allowed the zoo management to quickly monitor how people responded to those changes,” she said.

If the zoo responds to those comments, or even simply indicates that it cares about those reactions, that’s beneficial, Gehrt added.

“If the company shows me it’s really listening, that’s valuable for both sides.

“As a consumer, that makes me loyal to that brand.”


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