Firms Take to The Tweetable Business Model

By Kim Hart
Monday, March 9, 2009

The Twitterverse is expanding.

Twitter, that microblogging tool that caught on with teens and twentysomethings using it to tell loyal followers what they're doing at any given time -- in 140 characters or less -- is now becoming part of the business strategy for a wide range of brands, from Skittles to Fairfax County.

As exciting as it may be to hear about what your friends, or total strangers for that matter, ate for breakfast, some companies are realizing that a more effective use of Twitter is to mine it for clients, recruit employees and answer customer service questions.

To that end, some businesses are starting to host Twitter tutorials for employees.

Network Solutions, a Web-hosting and online marketing company based in Herndon, held a brown-bag lunch session last week to teach staffers how to sign up for a Twitter account, how to send messages to individuals and how to search for people who may be talking about the company in messages, or "tweets."

Twitter is an easy way to create buzz for a new product launch or to alert customers to a service outage. Earlier this week, the Skittles Web site directed visitors to a Twitter search for the term "skittle" to see what people were saying about the candy. Attendees at conferences and other business-related gatherings already use the service to relate details on an unusually interesting session or to share news announcements.

For example, at a conference focused on global health last month, philanthropist Bill Gates released a jarful of mosquitoes into a room to make a point about the spread of malaria.

"And people found out about that first on Twitter," said Steven Fisher, community and social media manager at Network Solutions.

Shashi Bellamkonda, Network Solutions' social media swami (yes, that's his real title), organized the tutorial, attended by about 30 people. He's a more prolific Twitterer than most, posting anywhere from five to 15 tweets per day about anything from his daily routine to the news. Big companies such as Dell are active in the Twitterverse addressing customer service issues, he said.

Fairfax County government is also experimenting with Twitter, sending out announcements about snow-induced school closings and county board meetings.

Companies are now accustomed to monitoring blogs and other consumer-generated content for mentions of brands -- in fact, companies such as Arlington-based New Media Strategies have made a profitable business out of it. Similarly, Bellamkonda wants Network Solutions employees to take notice of any questions, complaints or other mentions of the company that pop up on Twitter.

W. Roy Dunbar, the firm's chief executive, said it is even more important to communicate with customers during an economic downturn. He said he gives his social media team free rein to experiment with new tools.

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