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How to create deeper customer relationships on Twitter

Want to know how long it took Amazon recently to respond to an Australian customer's Twitter gripe posted late at night? Fifteen minutes. Southwest Airlines has been busy tweeting too; last week the airline spotted a tribute from a customer with a meager following and passed it along to its million-plus fans.

That's not just a couple of aggressive social media managers at work, it's smart business. Companies for years have used Twitter to post a daily barrage of news, announcements, and deals -- all in the name of engaging their customers. But until recently, few have really figured out how to harness the instant, 140-character power to Twitter to engage in real-time interactions in new ways that build long-lasting customer relationships.

Why are they doing it?

The bottom-line answer to that is simple: As surveys have shown, customers who interact with companies on social media are likely to buy up to 40 percent more products and services from those companies. Just as important, consumers on social media are tuning out to traditional one-way communication from corporate brands, and simply demand more. For instance, 17 percent of consumers last year turned to social media for customer service instead of a toll-free number. And for thousands of people during Hurricane Sandy, Twitter became a critical lifeline for millions of residents stranded in the dark as flood waters swirled.

Starting a meaningful Twitter conversation with your customers doesn't require fancy technology, tools, or cost --  just some tactical know-how and a true desire to connect. Below are a few simple ways to take your Twitter engagement strategy to the next level.

Evangelize your evangelists 

Companies that successfully engage with customers over Twitter start by empowering their followers. They have staff whose job it is to follow their followers and retweet their posts. They signal that they are paying attention by commenting on their followers' own musings and updates. A satisfied customer of Southwest Airlines with a mere 142 followers posted a meme that essentially thanked Southwest for not charging baggage fees. The airline saw it and retweeted the meme to its 1,482,000 followers.

Stay vigilant in responding to customer queries

Nobody wants to see customer grievances aired publicly -- especially if it's broadcast to an audience of thousands. But companies that ignore customer complaints on social media in general are making a big mistake. One disgruntled customer can cause a stampede in a matter of minutes. While a company can't immediately clear its name from a Twitter rant, it can go a long way toward minimizing the fallout by responding to the customer in real-time.

Amazon Web Services, for instance, constantly works to juggle customer questions on Twitter while at the same time redirecting the conversation (and resolving the issue) offline.  One recent customer gripe triggered this reply in 15 minutes:

Don't be one-dimensional -- forge new connections

Don't be a PR-bot on Twitter. What you want is for followers to be delighted or intrigued by what your company has to say -- and to share it with their followers. When a Tweet goes viral, the company becomes a part of the much larger discussion that extends to other social media platforms. Clorox and Old Spice work consistently at both informing and entertaining customers on Twitter -- which, when it comes to building community around unsexy products such as bleach, is easier said than done. Clorox, for instance, held last month a Twitter conversation about healthy eating that brought in scores of comments.

Similarly, an Old Spice chat, using the hashtag #wolfdogdomyhomework, entertained followers with tongue-in-cheek responses in keeping with its brand personality:

Customer relationship management on Twitter, even when approached as differently as Clorox and Old Spice have, boils down to how a company can capitalize on its strengths, product and culture to develop customer loyalty and conversations around their brand.

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