August 20th, 2008
Based on my observations of dozens of large companies who have ventured out onto Twitter in one way or another, here are my seven rules for establishing a corporate presence on Twitter. These seven rules will help a company start off on the right foot and gain credibility and consumer loyalty on Twitter.
On social networks in general, and on Twitter in particular, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who is an authorized company representative and who has just snagged a cool Twitter ID and Photoshopped a convincing Twitter background graphic.
Trust is the currency of social media. Without it, social media is worthless as a tool with which to engage customers. You may have read recently that ExxonMobilCorp on Twitter, turned out not to be an authorized representative of the company. (Jeremiah Owyang broke the story.) This is not the first revelation of Twitter identity theft, and Twitter, while having a clause in its terms of service protecting companies against people who co-opt their name and brand, does not actively police this unless approached by a company with a complaint.
These “rules” are intended to guide the legitimate company in building trust with consumers, and that includes assuring them that they are dealing with an authorized company representative. The world of social media is so new to most consumers, that companies are obligated to give them a little extra help in making these kinds of judgments.
1) Create a Twitter profile that helps people verify your legitimacy
Dozens of purported celebrities and companies on Twitter have turned out to be bogus. Link your Twitter profile to your company web site to give consumers a place to go if they have questions. Use your company logo as your “avatar” (profile picture), and use it in the background for your Twitter home page.
2) Let consumers know who they are talking to
Explain why you are on Twitter and who is responsible for your company’s presence there. Consumers want to talk to a “real person,” and not a bot. Harpers Magazine does a masterful job of this, especially given the limited number of characters available in a Twitter profile:
Comcast also does a fantastic job here. Other companies use their company name in the Twitter handle, such as jetBlue and Popeyes Chicken, but do not identify who is responsible for the account. In the case of jetBlue, it’s Morgan Johnston of jetBlue corporate communications and his staff. Popeyes Chicken on the other hand, identifies its Twitter spokesperson only as an employee in his mid-40s in the company’s IT organization. This information is not disclosed in either Twitter profile. I contacted each organization and asked who staffed their account.
3) Empower your Twitter representative to make a difference
There are many different models by which a company can engage with consumers on Twitter. Principally, these rules apply to companies that create Twitter accounts that are intended to serve in an almost traditional way as a vehicle for one or more company spokespeople. Companies that follow this model include jetBlue, Southwest Airlines, Popeyes Chicken and Comcast.
Comcast is a great example of a company representative who is empowered to help consumers. Comcast’s Twitter account is managed by Frank Eliason, Comcast’s congenial, helpful digital care manager. He actually gives technical support and advice via Twitter, and can dispatch technicians to help consumers. I’ve tweeted with him occasionally and he has a very pleasant personality and a good sense of humor. (Comcast has received national attention for its presence on Twitter.)
Another strategy for corporate spokespeople on Twitter is what could be called the “executive microblog.” When I started writing this set of “rules,” I wasn’t thinking about this type of corporate presence on Twitter, but it is worth mentioning.
Many senior executives use Twitter to chat with consumers, share their thinking, and answer general questions about the company’s strategy. They may be acting as spokespeople for the company or as individuals. It is difficult to tell sometimes.
For example, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, and Loic Lemeur of Seesmic, have Twitter accounts. Tony uses overt Zappos branding and clearly identifies himself as CEO of the company, while Loic does not identify himself as CEO of Seesmic, and links to his personal blog. Seesmic does have several corporate Twitter accounts with Seesmic branding. I do not know Loic, but these choices indicate to me that he chooses to be Loic Lemeur on Twitter and not a fulltime spokesperson for Seesmic. This is not a criticism of Loic or Seesmic, just an observation.
Obviously, CEOs are empowered on Twitter. Tony has launched several Zappos promotions form his Twitter account, giving away prizes like trips to Las Vegas.
4) Protect consumer information
This is a relatively new concern as companies like Comcast provide actual customer support on Twitter. Company spokespeople on Twitter should insist that consumers do not publicly share private information, and use more secure methods of transmitting personal data, like phone numbers and account numbers, for the purpose of customer support.
I mentioned previously that Frank Eliason does a great job with Comcast’s Twitter account, and he is very consistent in suggesting that consumers send him private information by direct message (private Twitter messaging), so that this information is not exposed in the Twitter public timeline. It’s a small thing, but it’s smart.
I am sure additional privacy issues will come up as more businesses see Twitter as a serious customer support tool.
5) Include your social media affiliations on your corporate web site news page
I think every company that uses Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and other social media/social networks for corporate communications of any kind should include a list of company social media affiliations on the news page of the company web site. This would allow consumers, journalists and bloggers to quickly verify whether they are talking to an official company spokesperson.
6) Be human, and have a sense of humor
I’ve enjoyed chatting with company spokespeople on Twitter. Popeyes Chicken and Comcast have both been fun to talk to. I had a lengthy and fascinating email conversation with Morgan from jetBlue (he knows social media), and exchanged direct messages with Tony from Zappos when a competitor charged the company with misappropriating some store photos. Popeyes Chicken made some great “nuggets” jokes (come on, you know what I mean), but tapered off on that. In every case, being able to talk to a real person, even a few characters at a time, “softened” the company and made me feel both sympathy and appreciation.
7) Turn control over to “regular” employees
One thing I’ve found interesting is that non-management, frontline customer service/customer relations folks generally aren’t representing companies on Twitter, nor are rank and file media relations staff. Some companies, like Dell, do have a visible presence of non-management people on Twitter, and Comcast is using real support people, but these are the exceptions. It’s early days still, and it seems most companies are being cautious and having more senior people handle their company’s Twitter account. Ultimately, it would be nice to see customer relations and media relations people staffing these corporate accounts on Twitter. It will prove Twitter’s viability as a legitimate way to engage with customers, and it makes more sense from a business standpoint.
And I’m not by any means advocating the corporatization of social media. There are many ways to use any form of social media, and on Twitter, some of the most powerful voices are those of executives like Tony Hsieh and Loic Lemeur. But there is also room for day-to-day business applications of Twitter, and these will need to be managed affordably and at the right level in the organization.
I’m sure there are plenty of things I’ve missed in regards to establishing a corporate presence on Twitter. These seven rules are the ones I feel most strongly about, so I hope you find them useful, and if you have other suggestions, please let me know!