Close-up: How Twitter allows direct access to consumers

Can Twitter give brands in the UK the sort of boost in profitability that some have engineered in the US, Kate Nettleton asks.

To the untrained eye, Mark Cridge's Twitter feed (see box) reads like the ramblings of someone with multiple personality disorder. To those who have succumbed to Twittering, though, these 140-character updates are the instantly recognisable dialect of the addictive social media tool Twitter.

Three years into its existence, the recent media frenzy around celebrity Twitterers, including Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross, and Barack Obama's successful use of the medium in the run-up to the US election, has seen the popularity of the "microblogging" site increase 27-fold in 12 months. This makes Twitter the seventh most popular social networking site in the UK, according to figures from Hitwise.

As someone such as Fry sees his Twitter following approach the 200,000 mark, the idea of commanding a captive online audience of hundreds of thousands is becoming difficult for brands to ignore.

Advertisers could learn a lot from celebrity Twitterers using the site to shape their personal branding, creating a close, one-on-one relationship with their fans without constantly filtering their thoughts through a PR sieve.

Robin Grant, the managing director of the social media agency We Are Social, which advises Fry on his use of Twitter, explains: "The advice we gave to Stephen centred on being himself and having genuine conversations with people. It's the same for brands. It's about being human, showing your real personality and allowing people to connect with you on an emotional level."

When it comes to brands, Flo Heiss, the creative partner at Dare, says: "You really need to have a personality behind it. It could be a real person, such as a receptionist, or character made up by yourself."

However, the internet marketing consultant David Bain disagrees: "It's easier when there is a person Tweeting, but it's cleverer when you don't anthropomorphise it. What if an inanimate object was to Tweet, for example?"

Whatever embodiment brands choose, the suitability of an advertiser's use of Twitter will depend upon the nature of the brand.

"It has to be a friendly, chatty brand," Amelia Torode, the managing partner at VCCP, explains. Her agency is behind's Alexandr the Meerkat, who has his own Twitter feed. "A brand such as Coca-Cola would be too large in its entirety. You need to work less at a higher-brand level and go down to the actual campaigns or smaller brands under the umbrella in order to start up the conversation."

In the UK, the uptake of Twitter among advertisers has been minimal. Brands such as Innocent and Penguin Books are dipping their toe into the medium, yet the more obvious success stories such as Aleksandr and Dare's Vodafone LiveGuy, are few and far between.

Stateside, there are far more successes, from Ford to Starbucks and even Dell, which has constructed a wide breadth of Twitter feeds from employees Twittering about the company, to a customer relations feed and even a sales promotion feed, which has led to an uplift in sales of $1million per month.

In isolation, a sales feed would be counterintuitive to the ethos of Twitter, but what these brands are also doing is using Twitter to answer questions and react quickly to complaints about their own products - treating it as an online customer relations tool.

Although the etiquette for brands using Twitter still remains undefined, given that every feed is "opt-in", brands will need to provide either utility or entertainment, or ideally both, to give consumers a reason to subscribe.

Faris Yakob, the chief technology strategist at McCann Erickson New York, explains: "Previously we had a model of buying attention from media companies. Now we've got direct relationships so we have to earn that attention - we have to earn it by being entertaining, useful and also nice."

Another requirement is reciprocity. After all, Twitter is about conversations - not monologues.

Mark Vile, the marketing director of, says: "Pushing commercial messages will turn the audience off and damage popularity. It is taking careful management to ensure our Tweets are sensitive to audience demands in terms of content and tone while also subtly achieving commercial ambitions."

This balancing act inevitably requires brands to "follow" other Twitterers, which raises concerns that consumers could feel stalked by brands. To address these fears, advertisers need to enter this nascent space quietly, and become part of the community, rather than trying to overpower it.

Tools such as Twitterverse, Twist, Tweetstats and Twitter Search provide a wealth of statistical data about the frequency, and even geographical location of Twitterers, discussing a brand.

Yet the stumbling block of proving an ROI still remains, and as the recession deepens, agencies may struggle to convince advertisers to include such a time-consuming channel in their marketing budgets.

Kieron Matthews, the managing director at the Internet Advertising Bureau, says: "It's not like making a TV ad where you can sit back for six months. It requires attention every 20 minutes and most brands don't have that kind of commitment or resource."

Even if an agency does convince a client to jump on the Twitter bandwagon, the client runs the further risk of appearing as if it has turned up late to a party where it has to sit uncomfortably close to an increasingly vocal and openly critical consumer.

With Twitter's announcement last week that it will remain free to consumers and brands, though, it would seem churlish for advertisers not to use the channel as an earpiece to listen in to the grievances that consumers are already expressing offline.

With a non-existent price tag, brands also have the freedom to experiment until they find the right tone of voice to engage the Twitter audience, which, as long as consumers continue to be obsessed with constant communication and connectivity, looks set to thrive.

Rather than repeating the fall-off in interest that happened with Second Life, Twitter has already proven it has the breadth to evolve and develop, expanding into picture and video Twittering. For the right brands, with the requisite wherewithal to maximise on its commercial value it could prove to be a durable channel in the fickle climate of social media.