Typecasting Twitter: 7 Leading Usees

As social media become routine in consumers’ lives, marketers are eager to understand how and why different social networks are perceived and how they are used. Twitter, the 140 character service, part news ticker, part party line and part message forwarding service, confounds many clients because of its skyrocketing awareness, intense, often time sensitive usage patterns and the novelty of brevity.

Twitter calls itself “an information network,” an identifier amplified by Ben Paar’s sense that it has a news media feel.  Brian Solis focuses on its fluid nature and constant morphing by observing, “On Twitter, we form contextual (and incidental) networks characterized by weak and strong ties spanning online and offline experiences.”

Twitter has come out of nowhere and, in roughly five years, has achieved an 87 percent awareness in the United States. With 180 million unique visitors a month the potential is vast but a small minority of tweeters accounts for most of the 90 million tweets per day. Twitter has 17 million active users, approximately seven percent of the US online population. Sixty-four percent of these users are adults 35 or older, 51 percent follow at least one brand or company and almost one in four access the service by mobile phone.

Yet Twitter works like talk radio. A few people drive the conversation but the vast majority of “lurkers” watch and listen to the on-going conversation, but don’t participate. Thirty four percent of registered users have never tweeted. Another 73% have tweeted ten times or less. Twenty five percent of registered users have no followers. There is a huge voyeuristic curiosity at play. Lots of people don’t want to miss what’s happening on Twitter.

The new (September 2010) design changes make it easier and simpler to add or embed links, video, audio, maps, pictures or other elements that flesh out or add dimensions to the story. According to Social Twist, Twitter posts draw a click-through-rate (CTR) of 19.04 percent, almost one in five, which is astounding in terms of interest and interaction and eight times greater than the CTR on Facebook. Twenty nine percent, one in every three tweets yields some kind of reaction – comments, re-tweets or clicks. Ten percent prompt a reply to the original tweet. These are direct marketing nirvana numbers.

The hashtag convention (#subject) makes it easy to find and participate in any conversation. Hashtags are early warning radar blips for marketers monitoring conversations, scouting trends and policing brand reputations. Ongoing broad public conversations on a national or lobal scale are the unique and differentiating aspect of Twitter and enable us to characterize a handful of unique uses for this channel.

From what I can see, the seven dominant uses of Twitter are:

Customer Service. Twitter enables real time praise and complaints as well as a channel to address and respond to either. Best Buy’s Twelpforce has mobilized 2300 employees to respond to 19,500 customer service queries in the past year. Other brands are engaging and monitoring the flow of positive and negative opinion about their products or services, operational performance, personnel and credit, shipping, return and merchandizing policies.

Early Warning Radar. Brands routinely track, monitor, count and characterize the conversations about them and their products on Twitter. This enables them to assess social sentiment, establish benchmark attitudes, follow viral transmissions and measure market or message penetration. It is common for brands to assess the impact or resonance of TV commercials or important promotions by looking to see if and how much Twitter patter they generate.

Direct Sales. Dell pioneered direct sales on Twitter and holds all the bragging rights. With 80 different Twitter handles pitching a full line of products and services, they have opened up an unexpected and growing revenue stream.

Coupon & Deal Distributor. A third of registered Twitter users signed up to get deals and discounts. Brands are regularly experimenting with distributing coupons and discount codes on Twitter. Other brands are offering sneak previews of new products and services, limited time and exclusive access to new stuff or priority access and pricing to Twitter savvy customers. Every brand is trying to understand how many of its Twitter followers are actual or potential buyers and several brands are testing offers and incentives to convert followers into buyers or convert one-time buyers into repeat VIP customers.

Breaking News Ticker. Twitter is a news source, a barometer of reactions to breaking news and a distribution channel. 19 percent of all tweets are about breaking news. With 600 tweets per second, Twitter is effectively a participatory global news ticker. People routinely post eyewitness accounts, videos and images of breaking stories before traditional news outlets can mobilize or get to the scene.

A CNN/Pownar study of global news tweets found that 27% of tweeters/sharers generated 87% of the shared news and that this news had high credibility among the online community and powerful affinity value for brands advertising on CNN and CNN International.

For the record, I don’t believe Twitter is a political force. Like Malcom Gladwell, I don’t believe Twitter fomented any revolutions anywhere. The Twitter channel and infrastructure gives political activists a way to work around government censorship and a somewhat tamper-proof communications tool to contact and rally followers or supporters.

Story Extender. Sixty five percent of tweets are related to on-going news stories, cultural debates and industry or business issues. One in four of these tweets includes a link to either the original story or to other content that compliments, enhances, disputes or counterattacks the issues at hand. Twitter has sustained the agony of Lindsay Lohan, expanded the Tea Party ascension, mirrored the debates on health care and taxes and given Lady Gaga a platform. This is also true for frivolous, funny, quirky or goofy stories that account for 16 percent of tweets. Twitter is a pass-along medium that expands the distribution of information adding commentary, critiques and context along the way. Twitter is digital communications Hamburger Helper.

Event Companion/Commentator. On global, national, industry and micro scales Twitter offers a real time side-by-side simultaneous group experience for live, broadcast or recorded events. Whether it’s the Superbowl, the Oscars, the mid-term election results, alive concert in any genre at any venue, a presentation at SXSW or the keynote speech at the International Plumbers Union, on Twitter participants, viewers and wannabees have a vehicle to comment, react, critique, free associate, embellish or add complimentary or contradictory information in the moment. Twitter expands the audience and turns events into group sharing activities.

The implications of these seven dominant uses of Twitter are being worked out by marketers and brands of every stripe. Twitter potentially empowers brands to anticipate or harness immediacy, connectivity and the sharing instinct. It also encourages brands to find and incent the active talkers and sharers in service to brand awareness, preference and purchase inten

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