June 24, 2010

“Should we be on Twitter?”

NOTE: This post is old, and is probably on different subject matter than my current writing. It is possible the information is outdated or my opinions have changed. -- Josh Klein, May 28, 2012

I’ve had a few conversations recently in which I’ve been asked what my response is to clients who ask, “should we be on Twitter?” You can replace Twitter with your preferred social media platform (say, Facebook) – the answer is the same either way.

Let’s pretend you’re the client asking the question, and I’ll stretch my acting creds by playing myself.

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Before we can answer that question, we need to take a step back and clarify what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Tools like Twitter may be new, but social media as a concept is as old as business itself; it’s the conversations that happen amongst your customers. Call it word of mouth, if you’d like.

While social media itself isn’t new, it’s impact on your business is. Twitter and similar platforms have brought the impact of word of mouth (both positive and negative) to an unprecedented level. In the old days, a customer might tell her dozen friends good or bad things about you. Now, she might tell a hundred or a thousand. And in the old days, when a real mover and shaker put out the word, maybe a few hundred or thousand people might take notice. Now, some of these folks have hundreds of thousands of people taking this word of mouth opinion into account.

And it’s self-reinforcing. The most read (linked) reviews start turning up in Google searches, and the effect is magnified.

And they’re there forever.

So the very first task, before we address whether or not you should be on Twitter, is to discover whether or not there is anything about you your customers think is worth talking about online. Don’t take that too harshly; it’s one thing to make sure your customers recommend your brand in response to a friend’s inquiry, and a whole other thing to get your customers to rant and rave about you.

Let’s take a bank as an example. Banks aren’t the sexiest of businesses, and my gut is that customers don’t switch banks all that often, probably because their core offerings are relatively alike. What do bank customers really have to talk about with each other?

Mint.com popped up a few years ago as a service that lets you, among other things, automatically check your spending against a budget you set without any manual labor. Mint gives me flashy graphs that are understandable at a glance, compared to the barely legible bank statements I can download as a PDF to manually plug into a spreadsheet (if I had the discipline to do that sort of thing).

I love Mint. I could not live without it and don’t know how I ever did. I recommend it to everybody I know.

Why didn’t a bank invent this as a competitive advantage in their industry? I switched banks a year ago because their online banking was marginally better. If there was only one bank out there that had Mint’s features, I would switch to them in the blink of an eye and make sure every person in my social network knew about it, too.

OK – there are plenty of reasons a bank didn’t invent Mint, chief among them that at a fundamental level, banks aren’t set up as businesses that can produce this sort of thing.

They could have turned to a top notch digital ad agency to have it made, but it’s a strange thing to some people to spend an “advertising” budget on something that isn’t advertising per se.

But that’s what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about thinking outside the traditional mindset that says a 30-second television spot is the best you can do. And in social media, it isn’t the media part of the equation that requires your budget anymore. That part is free, or close to it.

So if you were a bank, I would say that the first thing you need to do to “get on Twitter” is to produce something as incredibly useful as Mint. Or buy it. It turns out that Intuit (Quicken) were the ones to snag Mint, but what might it have done to the banking industry if Bank of America had bought it instead?

Every business sector has examples like this, where some technology startup has built a killer app that could be a game changer if only one of the old guard had done it first.

And it doesn’t have to be a useful website application; look at Johnson & Johnson who built Babycenter.com as a repository for parenting information.

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons why this wouldn’t work for you:  it’s outside your core competency, it might dilute your brand, you’re in the business of making this but not that.

These concerns are justifiable.

But although Babycenter is only tangentially related to Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical business, they recognized the value in cashing in on the attention gold rush to reach 5 million highly-targeted, pre-qualified, unique website visitors per month.

We’re not talking about women, age 20-35, sitting on their couch. We’re about about 5-million households with babies actively seeking parenting solutions right this moment. What would your TV media spend have to be to do that?

The second task, after creating this thing worth talking about, is to put the tools and technologies into place that enable your customers to pass on their highly amplified word of mouth. This part isn’t easy, but it’s not the main challenge.

Your question was, “should we be on Twitter?” The answer is: only after you have something worth talking about.

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After you’ve sorted out the broader question of whether social media is the right strategy to pursue, check out my post on Twitter Strategy for a discussion of whether Twitter is the right platform to use.