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.

Email also has the downside that the sender has my email address and may share it with others who are going to clutter up my in-box. With a good spam filter, this extra unwanted email isn’t a huge problem, but the mere threat of subsequent email deluges can give me pause about whether or not I trust a website enough to give them my email address. (As you can appreciate, the website’s privacy policy is a complete non-factor in my trust determination).

From the sender’s standpoint, email is a huge pain. It is more heavily regulated than other marketing media, and complying with the regulations (such as providing a reliable opt-out mechanism) is costly and filled with litigation risks. Perhaps more importantly, email can be reported or killed as spam at several steps along the way, and the sender can be tagged as a spammer as well for all future messages. So, for example, a big website’s email distribution of an announcement about a new user agreement or privacy policy–a completely legitimate communication between a site and its users–is almost certain to prompt a flurry of unsubscribes, emails from users who insist to their IAPs and email service providers that they are being spammed (even though they often just forgot about the relationship), and lots of bouncebacks from dead email addresses that may cause some IAPs/email service providers to blacklist the sender as a spammer. Plus, a bunch of users will never see the message at all because it goes into their spam folder. (Recall, for example, that AT&T spam-foldered its own contract amendment announcement). These are not exactly the hallmarks of an effective communication technology.

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 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.

For example, as I recently mentioned, RSS is a great option for websites to allow users to learn about changes to user agreements and privacy policies on a true opt-in basis. In this respect, RSS is so much better than email. Consider, for example, DoubleClick’s privacy policy, which offers users the opportunity to learn about privacy policy amendments by signing up to an email list. (DoubleClick will rarely have the email address already because it doesn’t have direct privity with users). DoubleClick’s option is a more enlightened practice than most similar web services, but still, no thanks. If I don’t trust DoubleClick’s privacy practices to begin with, I’m not going to give them my email address with the risk that they will spam the crap out of it and pass it along to others who will spam the crap out of it too. Of course DoubleClick promises not to do this, but the whole point is that those promises mean nothing to the people who don’t trust DoubleClick to begin with. On the other hand, if DoubleClick offered an RSS feed to announce modifications to its privacy policy, then I could subscribe to its notifications with no spam risk at all.

I’m so enamored with RSS as a superior notification tool for announcing privacy policy and user agreement amendments that I will be recommending it to all of my clients as a supplement to other notification options. I hope you’ll consider doing the same.