June 17, 2009
Twitter, Email and Brand Engagement
By Eric Goldman
Last week, in an interview with a reporter, I extolled the virtues of Twitter as a tool for brands to keep in touch with and engage their customers. The reporter responded by asking why brands would choose Twitter to engage customers instead of email, which companies have been using successfully for many years. I thought this question raised important issues about online marketing, so I thought it would be worth exploring the differences here.
Let's start with some basics. I am a big fan of email marketing. Like many of you, I have voluntarily signed up for numerous commercial email newsletters/announcement. I also get unrequested email from companies I've dealt with; I look at some of these, I ignore others, and occasionally I get so fed up that I blacklist the sender or report it as spam. I also get spam, LOTS of spam, but it doesn't bother me too much. Gmail has a good spam filter and it only takes a minute or two a day to sort, review and delete the spam.
However, as a recipient, email has some downsides. Most obviously, it is not always easy to unsubscribe. I remain amazed in this post-CAN-SPAM era by how often email unsubscriptions don't work. The link may be down, or my opt-out simply doesn't stick technologically, or the sender just ignores me. This is true even for senders who are involved in the legal industry and are spamming lawyers who love to bring lawsuits (never a wise move). If I were a litigious plaintiff, I would have no problem finding plenty of defendants.
Contrast the user experience with Twitter. More than anything, Twitter is a no-risk opt-in communication tool for consumers to listen to marketers. I can follow a brand at Twitter any time, and more importantly, I can unfollow at any time too. Plus, there isn't any risk that the brand I'm following will ignore my unsubscribes or pass along my Twitter username to spammers. When I unfollow, the relationship is completely over on my terms.
From the brand's standpoint, Twitter has none of the baggage of email marketing. No spam folders to fear, no unsubscribes to manage, no CAN-SPAM. Sure, Twitter's tight character restriction mostly limits marketers to headlines, but frankly this isn't all that different from maximizing email subject lines to get email recipients to open the email.
Twitter has one other really important benefit for brands. Folks are often willing to retweet a message--even a commercial message--thereby sharing it to their entire follower base in ways that these same folks would never forward a commercial email to hundreds of their friends. And this type of word-of-mouth marketing is the holy grail of marketing because of the extra imprimatur of having the message validated by someone in the reader's social network. The retweeting phenomenon is a powerful traffic driver (I've been watching how it boosts my bit.ly stats), and marketers who aren't on Twitter are missing some upside. (Please, marketers, don't even consider shilling or astroturfing or any of those other silly stunts to generate faux word-of-mouth marketing; if you have a good offering, you really don't need to disrespect people that way).
I don't follow many commercial brands in Twitter, but I do want to mention three brands that have impressed me:
@LivingHarvest. I tried hempmilk for the first time recently, and I was fascinated to learn about the extensive anti-industrial hemp regulations that have hampered hempmilk from coming to market. LivingHarvest, a hempmilk manufacturer, is Twittering the status of various legislative efforts to enable industrial hemp farming. It's a fascinating political drama.
@UnitedAirlines. I am a frequent flyer on United Airlines, so I'm already on their email list. But they have totally gotten the point of Twitter. Not only have they been offering valuable freebies to their Twitter follower to boost their subscriber count (they are giving away discount certificates if you sign up before they hit 50,000 followers), but they also offer "Twares," blowout deals on remnant inventory. LOVE IT!
@AmazonMP3. Amazon offers one highly discounted MP3 download a day, and this Twitter account notifies me of the deal of the day. Great stuff. I've lost track of the number of times I've purchased albums this way.
Twitter practices like these build my trust as a loyal customer and pull cash out of my wallet in ways email marketing never did.
One final point: RSS offers many of the same benefits as Twitter in terms of reader empowerment, although it does not have the same retweeting upside. In particular, RSS is a true opt-in like Twitter. The website doesn't get my email address, and whenever I unsubscribe from the RSS feed in my RSS reader, it's over.
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