Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first installment of a series examining social networking and how Richmond businesses are navigating the web to meet one another and promote their businesses. On Thursday we will be examining Facebook and LinkedIn, and on Friday the business of selling social media.
In one corner there are Twitterers. Richmonders like NBC newscaster Ryan Nobles, who uses the website to post blurbs about his life several times a day:
And: “I hate the #Phillies. Seriously. As much as I hate people who kill puppies. #fb”
Or Chris Wilmore from Carmax, who recently wrote, “At Tara Thai at Short Pump Mall meeting a friend for lunch!”
In the other corner are Richmonders who find the idea of posting exclamation-point-laced minutiae absurd and are baffled as to why companies are using the same websites as teenagers.
For all the talk about how Web 2.0 is “revolutionizing” business, local professionals say the rules of blogging and Twitter are almost identical to those that apply to old-fashioned, face-to-face networking. Don’t blatantly plug your business. Try to make yourself likable, and then people will want to do business with you.
According to dozens of interviews with local business owners and marketing professionals, it’s unclear how helpful Twitter is for most businesses, or even if it is more effective than more traditional marketing strategies (handing out business cards, cold calling, seminars, etc.). And businesses report spending a varying amount of time with the website.
But it’s free. In this economy, that’s a huge plus, and one likely reason why seemingly every newspaper and magazine and TV show is talking about it.
Still, the future of Twitter is murky. It may eventually become too crowded with marketers to appeal to consumers. (When’s the last time any consumer logged on to Myspace?)
Just imagine what would happen if everyone in a room started yelling what they were doing. That’s already happened in the local blogging scene. RVA Blogs serves as the nerve center for more than 400 local blogs. Most get hardly any clicks at all, while a few popular ones are more widely followed.
Twitter’s growth would make any business owner green with envy. The site ballooned by more than 700 percent in 2008. According to Compete.com, Twitter had nearly 20 million visits last month.
Because so many people join and quit Twitter each week, it is impossible to determine how many local businesses are on the site. But it’s probably in the ballpark of 650. (You can read a partial list here.)
Of that figure, PR and marketing people are the biggest majority. Small retailers also have a heavy presence, especially those who sell to a web-savvy audience. Most Twitterers are under 40. There are hardly any bankers or lawyers on Twitter, nor are there many businesses in more traditional industries like manufacturing and homebuilding.
Holly Rodriguez, who helps market the University of Richmond, uses Twitter daily to reach the mainstream media. “A lot of media professionals have it, and we’ve been using it to post press releases and connect with other individuals in higher education. Basically, we are trying to keep our name out there.”
Worth the Effort?
Avrum Elmakis spends two hours a day on Twitter. Elmakis, who founded the locally-based dog treat company Bully Sticks (RBS wrote about the company here), reaches out to customers and uses Twitter along with his blog to alert customers about deals and to build brand loyalty. Twitter is particularly effective for Bully Sticks because consumers can be fanatical about their pets and then become devotees of his product.
That’s never going to be the case for most businesses, Elmakis said.
“I’m in a niche market because I run an online business which sells a low-cost product. I can afford to give away free samples, and that will hopefully generate sales in the future.”
Charles Collie, a brand consultant at Martin Branding Worldwide, said companies should be on Twitter because it puts a human face on a company and directly markets to people based on their interest, via their tweets.
A tweet is like a micro-blog, in which a twitterer can write a blurb no longer than 140 characters. This paragraph you are about to finish reading is 140 characters long.
As for the banality of the chatter, Collie responded, “If you don’t care, don’t be on Twitter. But there are enough people on Twitter who do care. I think we are in a cycle in our culture where we don’t value flash and attractive advertising but genuineness. Twitter allows a business to be more genuine.”
The cost is also mighty appealing to companies that have, across the country, slashed ad budgets more than 20 percent.
Nhat Pham has used social networking to help market specials for local restaurants. “First and foremost, it’s cost effective,” said Pham, who works for Successwerks.
Few of the business in Richmond that are on Twitter can account for how many sales or how much revenue it has produced. To be sure, that’s also a problem with most forms of marketing. But most business owners or high-level executives are not on it, save a few local entrepreneurs, and that could severely limit its reach.
And Twitter is hardly the first web-based way of reaching customers. A decade ago, few businesses had websites or email newsletters; now it’s hard to fine one that doesn’t.
Still, some business folks find it just plain baffling, and there could be a risk that a business comes across as unprofessional or sloppy.
“I’m not arrogant enough to believe that anybody cares about what I’m doing at any given moment of the day,” said Bryan Miller, the owner of the tech security firm Syrinx Technologies. “If I get up in the morning and tweet ‘just had a glass of water and it was cold,’ who really gives.”
“I would never buy anything from anybody from a cold call, and that’s what advertising on Twitter is. It’s just a cold call.”
Jeff Jefferson, on the other hand, tries to tweet every day on behalf of his coaching firm Actum Inc. He said Twitter helped him set up a networking event for Virginia Tech graduates and then find several hundred followers who regularly check in on his progress.
“I’ve got another couple of hundred followers and I have enough identifying information on my page so that if people want to reach me through my Twitter, they can.”
And most businesses that use Twitter can produce some anecdotal evidence of the results they’ve gained from it, but few have any substantial numbers or hard facts about the effort they put in.
Indeed, a recent Harvard Business School study found that 25 percent of Twitterers don’t post a single tweet. More than 75 percent of users tweet only four times total and 90 percent of Tweets are posted by 10 percent of users.
And Neilson Online recently published a survey saying that 60 percent of Twitterers give up on the social networking site after a month.
Some local businesses seem to be losing interest. After several posts in may, the Hyatt Richmond lasted posted on May 28, “WE ARE OPENING TODAY!! Come by after 3:00pm so we can show you the place! :)”
They have not posted since.
Don’t Sell Out Your Friends, Slate
Why small business should play nice—but hard—with social media.
Tweeting for profit, Fortune Small Business
Putting Twitter’s World to Use , New York Times
Interview with Biz Stone on Colbert Report