On Message: The challenge of harnessing Twitter’s power

On Message: PR Week editor Danny Rogers on marketing and branding

A Twitter feed is not an easy, cut-price route to a successful marketing campaign, warns PRweek editor Danny Rogers

With Facebook this week digging itself deeper into crisis over privacy settings, rival Twitter is increasingly looking the only game in town when it comes to social networking.

While millions of Facebook users plan resignation of their registrations in protest at frankly ridiculous default privacy settings, and growing commercialism, the more straightforward Twitter goes from strength to strength. Last month it scaled the 100 million user mark and continues to grow exponentially.

But just how powerful a marketing tool is Twitter when it comes to travel and tourism? The answer is not as obvious as it first appears.

Last week Holiday Autos made a big deal of ‘bolstering its new brand campaign by kicking off an active Twitter feed’. The car hire broker announced breathlessly that it would use this feed to ‘promote offers including special Twitter-only deals’.

While one would encourage travel brands to embrace new media such as Twitter, this campaign immediately looked naïve and lacklustre.

It was offering the first 500 people who sent it a specific tweet a 5% discount on car hire. Five per cent! Hardly worth getting out of bed, let alone spreading the word in a feverishly viral manner.

And this leads us to other glaring problem: the vast majority of consumers won’t even know about this campaign unless they follow Holiday Autos in the first place.

Twitter’s unique strength is the frequent, real-time nature of its conversation. One-off promotions, unless startlingly unusual and generous, will be ignored because people are more gainfully tied up engaging with users who have more in common with them.

Or indeed with news providers or bloggers, who provide fresh, useful information by the hour.

And this challenge is inherent to travel. Last week a study by online sentiment tracker Peoplebrowsr listed the top 20 brands mentioned on twitter. None were travel brands.

This is because people traditionally have a less frequent relationship with airlines, hotels or car-hire companies than they do with, say, their branded phone, PDA or coffee shop.

This is not to say that Twitter is a lost cause as a marketing tool. But brands must recognise the distinct type of relationship that needs to be fostered.

For example airlines such as ThomsonFly, British Airways and Jet2 have discovered that, during a crisis, Twitter can be a very useful tool in disseminating information. And if they do it well, users will follow their Twitter addresses.

But this is just the first step. Once they are being followed, these brands then have the responsibility to communicate useful information, otherwise the relationship will break down.

This usually means practical advice, particularly during unusual situations such as strikes or natural disasters. Yes, it can mean the occasional promotion, but these should be designed to offer genuine value and should certainly not be intrusive or overblown.

The other golden rule – and this is the tricky bit – is that when consumers reply, or even mention their brand, companies must reply quickly, sensitively and constructively.

Unfortunately this means investing in real resource to monitor, and respond to, Twitter on a 24-7 basis. No-one ever said powerful marketing was going to be cheap, or easy, even with the advent of new media.

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