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Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Can Twitter work for the Smaller Business?

When I started using Twitter I had two objectives. One was to see how Twitter functions as a social media marketplace and the other was to get a sense of how smaller businesses could use it as a channel to market.

Despite the hype around it Twitter still seems to me to be a niche product. That is based on the composition of its members. It reminds me of all those speed networking events that were so popular, their limiting factor was that it was predominantly sellers who attended and what we really need is buyers. I don't pretend to suggest that Twitter will die out as speed networking has but it does suffer from this phenomenon of too many sellers.

There are some areas where Twitter is well suited. The B2C environment for one, and there is certainly anecdotal evidence that companies have generated real revenue from Twitter and those providing digital products have found it a regular source of new business. It is however fair to say that this is not a quick win, it does take time and effort to build up a reputation and presence on Twitter. Mostly however its time; for those who are involved in delivering digital services, this is not an issue since using online environments is their natural marketplace. For those offering physical products and services it's a more challenging environment. However, if you're selling into the B2B or SoHo markets then it can still be an effective route. Essentially the fact that you can readily communicate with the decision maker and that the sales process is simple and short means that using Social Media Marketing (SMM) works well and having good visibility on twitter will certainly generate interest.

At the other end of the scale major corporates' have the time and resources to dedicate the man hours necessary to regularly insert their message and build that vital link of trust with their customers and prospects. So you can see many of the worlds largest businesses using Twitter including, Dell, Ford, etc. Dells assertion that it obtained $1million in revenue from Twitter has been well publicised. We must however accept that larger businesses already have an advantage since they've built a level of "trust" around their brand long before Twitter came along and they leverage that advantage further now.

One should not forget also that Twitter is more attractive to business because postings are necessarily short and unlike Facebook, You Tube or MySpace is text based. Interestingly this will make it more readily adopted by the professional in a higher age group and therefore more suited to today's decision makers.

The more difficult question is how "Fred Bloggs of Bloggs Joinery" can use Twitter. B2B business is not necessarily well suited to Twitter and many owner managers don't have the time to devote to develop a network, and quality is still as important as quantity. This is ignoring the import question of whether they "get Twitter" which is likely to be a major hurdle in itself. I have spoken to a number of small business owners who just don't "get it" and have subsequently stopped using it before they really had a chance see what it could do for them. So what options are open to them, well firstly assuming there is sufficient marketplace on Twitter for their product (something that is seriously open to question), they could encourage all their staff to join Twitter and use a collection of voices to build up a following or secondly, outsource. This may seem an extreme step or even heresy in Social Marketing, but to me it's an inevitable consequence of how social marketing works. SMM agencies will naturally develop enormous power simply by having several clients each with several users promoting several products. With that infrastructure its becomes almost inevitable that they would harness all the voices from all the clients to cross promote each new product growing in power and effect each time they add new clients. The next logical step is to dispense with real voices and create surrogate voices after all it's relatively easy to create persona's which people can use as templates. If true it would completely undermine the concept of Social Media Marketing as we know it.

These are surprisingly radical conclusions but supported, I think, by strong logic. I dont presume to know that this is true and I'm looking to you to tell me what do you think? Let me have your thoughts.

Laurence Ainsworth www.exigent-uk.com


  1. You really need to checkout my friend Ian McKendrick, aka @IanMcKendrick on Twitter.
    He is the man to tell and show how social networking can be controlled and used to huge advantage by SMEs.

    You don't use social media to sell products or services. You use it to establish a profile, a reputation and contacts! It's these three things that then sell for you!

    I'm just back from hearing Ian talk for the umpteenth time, and every time I hear him I learn so much great new stuff. If every IBD Adviser introduced their clients to this low cost technique for generating business, there would be more millionaires and less work for you and me!

    I've tried to get at least one IBD Regional Group to get him along as a speaker, but no takers yet. He'll be unavailable on world tours soon!!!

    You won't get Cambridge local radio in Kent but try downloading stuff from Star Radio where Ian is doing a series on social networking.

    All the best,


  2. I had no idea Twitter was a marketing tool. I've only just signed up, but I guess I can expect some spam in the coming days!

  3. Hi, thanks Laurence, I find that as a professional service business twitter is a valuable research and marketing tool, thats because we deal with knowledge and information, and our service ( accountants ) is based on the use of that information. I think there would be some use for the fred Bloggs of Bloggs Joinery client but I think some innovation would be required !

  4. Hi Laurence - good blog and you presented some thought provoking issues. I have been experimenting with Twitter in my business and can see terrific potential for my target audience; however, I don't know that Twitter is the answer for everyone. For example, would the local plumber get return on their time investment on Twitter - doubtful.

    I think that Twitter, like many of the other Web 2.0 app's has its place and will work extremely well for some businesses, and not so well for others.

    What I find interesting is how big name companies are jumping all over this and, in effect, managing to de-personalize it. Kind of ironic when you look at the essence of any sort of networking - isn't it about building relationships? I don't know about you, but I am a bit turned off by the auto-responders on Twitter that immediately direct me to their product sales page! I am likely to "unfollow" those people, in fact. On the flip side, there are days when I get a surge of "followers" on Twitter and it can be burdensome to reply to each individually.

    It will be very interesting to see how Twitter evolves over the next months/years and how business, large and small, find a way to monetize it without, hopefully, losing the personal quirkiness of it.

    Debbi Bifulco

  5. Interesting read...I would suggest that Twitter is one of many social media tools that can be a part of a larger online marketing strategy.

    Twitter can be time intensive, but also great for visibility. The key is in understanding its role and function, then controlling the amount of time spent.

    Some small biz owners could benefit from its use, some won't. Which is why market and demographic research is important regardless of which social media site is in question.

    Glad to see you are digging deep for the answers...:)

  6. Hi Laurence, very valid points raised and you have hit the nail on the head across the board for the difficulties faced by SMEs in time management and return and the major hurdle of "getting it".

    If your not in you cant win is my attitude at this stage so I think businesses should definitely be aware of it and taking it seriously as it only takes one small evolutionary step by some smart individual to make anyone who hasn't invested some time in now seriously regret it later.

  7. Thanks Justin,

    It becoming increasingly clear that the experience in and about social networking is slim. Many companies are getting on the bandwagon as a "me too" and as some sort of internet play.

    As you say "you've got to be in it to win it" and a least if your on the inside you have a chance of getting that competitive advantage before it falls back into the realms of the 1% return or the more mature marketing activities.

  8. Hi Laurence
    What a thought provoking article. I agree with "You use it to establish a profile, a reputation and contacts" and also that it is a superb research tool.