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According to conventional business wisdom, companies should abandon efforts to acquire new customers during an economic downturn and focus instead on their best customers. The primary benefits of doing so are cost reduction and improved customer loyalty, we are told.

The problem with this approach is that we are not in conventional times.

Customer loyalty is fickle

Before Google, most people shopped with catalogs and in local stores. Today, the world is at shoppers' fingertips. Anything that you sell can be found somewhere else, probably at a lower price. Even if you have delivered perfect service, your customers will occasionally stray. They may test the waters and quickly return, but your revenue is still reduced. Ignoring opportunities to acquire new customers during these turbulent times is suicidal.

Fortunately, the same technology that expands your customers' horizons works for you, too. The Internet has evolved into a social network filled with opportunities to attract new customers and engage the ones you already have.

Of course, risk comes with every opportunity. Since the entry fee is minimal, using social media to grow your business doesn't require a significant financial investment. But don't be misled by the perception that it is risk-free. The risk is customer and brand alienation. If you make a major misstep, your company could suffer irreparable harm.

Before you enter the relatively new frontier of social media, you need an action plan. Although the costs are low, social media tools require extensive maintenance to be effective. Your strategy needs to fit your corporate culture, resources, and customer expectations.

Twitter is probably the best place to test the social-media waters to see if it is right for your company.

What is Twitter?

If you haven't seen one of the thousands of stories about Twitter, here is a short description: Twitter is a micro-blogging site that allows you to post mini-messages called tweets.

The heading on the message-entry form in Twitter is "What are you doing?" That question is deceptive. No one really cares what you are doing unless it is really interesting. Instead, use Twitter as a communication and conversation tool.

And remember that Twitter is not an advertising medium. Posting one marketing message after another isn't effective. It doesn't attract prospects or engage customers. If you are not going to use it to establish relationships, stay away—far, far, away.

Why should you use it?

Twitter is the fastest-growing social-media site, with an estimated 14 million unique visitors in March 2009, compared with 2.6 million when I joined, in August 2008. (Source: Compete, Inc.) Wouldn't you love to have that growth rate? Most of the users are age 25-54, with the largest segment the 45-54 age group. (Source: comScore Media Metrix)

Twitter is a media darling today. People join it out of curiosity. Most stay because it is informative and fun. The growth and activity provide an opportunity for you to get your message out to customers and prospects. In a year or two, Twitter may follow MySpace and lose some popularity. Until then (if it happens), use it to grow your business and customer loyalty.

How do you use it?

You need a plan, because building a following requires a consistent message and continual updates. If you are not actively tweeting, your base won't grow. You'll be talking to yourself.

Start by defining your purpose for tweeting. You are not creating your mission statement or value proposition here. It doesn't have to be perfect or transcend generations, because it will evolve as you proceed.

For example, a gardening-supply company might define its purpose for tweeting as "providing tips and tactics for people to improve their gardening skills." Notice that there is no mention of sales, customer acquisition, corporate growth, or profitability. Those are all side effects of using Twitter.

What are the steps?

After you have defined your purpose, follow these 13 steps:

1. Create 50-100 tweets that fit your brand and objective. Keep them to approximately 120 characters so they can be easily retweeted (re-posted by others). In the case of the gardening example, tweets could range from planting times to frost warnings.

2. Open your user account with your business name as your user ID. Complete the profile, including the bio, and include the names of all those who post. People connect with people best. You want a personal connection. (Don't panic. This doesn't mean that you will be having tea with your followers... unless you want to.)

3. Add an avatar. Some choose to use their corporate logo, whereas others use their own photo. Choose what feels right to you and fits your brand.

4. Create a unique background that represents your company. There are services available to do this, but you can do it in-house. You want it to have the same look and feel as your corporate website. Make sure that the background-text details are visible on different types of monitors. Not everyone has the latest and greatest technology.

5. Determine the best days to tweet. These would be the days that your customers or prospects are most likely to be online. Select a scheduler to post your tweets. Remember that the world is open 24/7. As Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett remind us, it's five o'clock somewhere. Running the tweets for an 8-12-hour cycle and then repeating them expands your coverage.

6. Make sure that some of your tweets have links back to your website. Make it easy for people to find you. Don't expect them to go to your profile for your link, and don't overdo it. If every tweet has a link, people resist following you.

7. Start the Twitter test. Consistently tweet for a minimum of 30 days (90 is better). Watch your traffic and sales to ensure that you're receiving a return on your investment. At the end of the trial period, decide whether to continue or quit.

8. Don't be a hit-and-run tweeter. Check in periodically on the days that your messages appear for comments, retweets, and new followers. Respond when appropriate. The idea is engagement, not blasting.

9. Resist becoming addicted to Twitter. Your objective is to create and enhance relationships, not be tethered to an electronic device.

10. Always remember that your tweets are a reflection on your brand, and they are permanent. Twitter has a delete option, but the tweets still show up in a search.

11. Don't worry about the number of people following you. Think about the quality. When I first started acquiring followers, most were "get rich quick, let me tell you how for the low price of" marketers. I noticed that if I didn't respond to their tweets, they stopped following me within a week. I'm sure that those who follow me will always include similar folks, but my focus is on the people who read my tweets and connect with me.

12. Have fun. You are meeting new people, broadening your horizons, and hopefully gaining new customers. If that isn't fun, you are in the wrong business.

13. Ask for help if you are unsure how to proceed. There are people available to guide you.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Debra Ellis
Debra Ellis is a speaker, consultant, and author of the integrated marketing guide Social Media 4 Direct Marketers. She is the founder of Wilson & Ellis Consulting (www.wilsonellisconsulting.com) and can be reached via dellis@wilsonellisconsulting.com.