Twitter for E-tailers: How Microblogging Boosts Branding

We explain what microblogging is, what advantages it holds for your online store and how to do it.
Do you Twitter? And if you don't, should you? Twitter is one of several microblogging services that, if used appropriately, can provide small e-tailers with a free, easy-to-use marketing tool that resonates with tech-savvy consumers, said Linda Bustos, blogger and emergency media analyst for e-commerce software developer Elastic Path.

Developing a Following, Literally
Microblogging is an emerging form of social networking. Twitter, Jaiku and other microblogging services let subscribers blast brief messages to other subscribers for free. The microblog posts can be sent and received via Web browser on a computer or Web-enabled cell phone; by e-mail or instant message; or as cell phone text messages.

The original concept behind microblogs was to create a way for users to let others who follow them know what they're doing at any given moment, Bustos said. For example, some recent updates posted to Twitter.com's Public Timeline page included:
  • "Going to watch either Dexter or Brotherhood."
  • "Our new puppy is eerily creeped out by 2001 A Space Odyssey."
  • "I think i might start being no-shirt-guy."

Despite the casual nature of microblogging, e-tailers and other companies are awakening to its potential to connect with customers one-on-one, in powerful ways. Consider this: Amazon.com and Woot.com are both using Twitter to broadcast short news items and special deals.

And, even major television networks are experimenting with Twitter as a marketing tool. For example, ESPN uses Twitter to send sports updates. MTV used Twitter to promote its MTV Music Awards and Video Music Awards shows.

Why You Should Consider Microblogging
At the moment, microblogging is a small blip on the social networking radar. For example, though Twitter doesn't reveal user statistics, comScore Media Metrix estimated Twitter drew just 370,000 unique visitors within the U.S. during June.

But small e-tailers are awakening to the potential of microblogging as an e-commerce marketing tool, Bustos added. Google's recent acquisition of Jaiku, along with increased awareness of microblogging in general, is expected to further fuel interest among Mom & Pop shops, she said.

Plus, analyst LeeAnn Prescott of Hitwise, USA, a Web traffic tracking firm, says though the audience may be small, it's spending a lot of time at the site. "The average session time for Twitter was eight minutes 56 seconds, showing that the Web site is engaging its users. We will definitely keep an eye on on this one," she said.

Among the potential advantages microblogs can provide, according to Bustos:
  • You can instantly drive traffic to your e-commerce site with alerts about special deals or new merchandise, which is what Amazon.com and Woot.com do. For example, you could offer a 10-percent discount to followers who buy something from your site within the next two hours.

  • The messages you send and receive can be viewed on your microblogging site page, providing a useful archive of customer communications. Customers can leave comments about your product or service, which others can view. If comments are negative, you also have the opportunity to respond to them publicly.

  • The more followers who link to your microblog page, the more visible that page can be in search engine results. (You can include a link to your e-commerce site on your microblog page.)

  • Twitter and Jaiku users are typically young and tech savvy-making microblogging even more attractive to e-tailers targeting those consumers.

  • You can share more than just text. Though Twitter is text only, Jaiku lets you share calendar events, your current location and other things. Pownce, a microblogging newcomer, lets you blast files (such as digital images) to others.

Attention E-marketers: Some Downsides
As with any marketing effort, microblogging has potential disadvantages, too, warned Bustos. For instance, she said most likely, only a handful of your customers subscribe to a microblogging service.

Also, message length is severely limited. "Think in terms of telegrams instead of e-mails," Bustos advised. For instance, Twitter messages can be no more than 140 characters.

And, another drawback, as of this writing, Jaiku and Pownce are invitation only. Finally, your messages could simply get lost among so many others.

Tips for Successful Twittering
If, however, you're ready to try Twittering, Bustos offers several tips for e-tailers considering microblogging:
  • Boost the number of your followers by including your Twitter or Jaiku page URL on sales receipts, on your own Web site and in other prominent places.

  • Offer something of value in each message, whether it's a special deal or a piece of important news. Otherwise, followers will start to tune you out.

  • Don't send messages too frequently. Focus on the quality of what you're saying or offering, as opposed to the quantity of messages.

  • When someone opts to follow you, follow them back. You can learn about your current or potential customers that way.

  • Remember that you forfeit some control over your marketing message when you microblog. That's why it's important to read what others write about you on your microblog page. Respond immediately to negative feedback.

Worth Trying?
"With so many options to reach your customers now, it makes sense to test everything," said Bustos-especially when, like microblogging, it's free and easy to do.

San Francisco-based James A. Martin has decades of experience covering technology and is a frequent contributor to ECommerce-Guide.com.

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