Twitter Is/Is Not a Serious Marketing Tool

Last Updated Apr 15, 2009 10:07 AM EDT

For marketers trying to get a handle on how Twitter can be used to connect with customers and potential customers, John Sviokla has some very sound advice: Understand the medium and what you want to get out of it.

Babson business professor Thomas Davenport has some advice, too: Don't waste your time with this passing fad.

Which side are you on?

First to Sviokla. Writing in his post Twitter: A Marketer's Duct Tape, on Harvard Business Publishing, Sviokla says it's only a matter of time before Google or Microsoft acquire Twitter and make the technology an integral part of how every business communicates. "Starting now will give you a jump on your competition," says Sviokla.

But he encourages marketers to ponder three questions before embracing Twitter.

  1. "What are people saying about my brand? There are many tools that can help you track how people are talking about your company, customer complaints, or other issues your customers are thinking about.
  2. "How can I connect and build a direct communication between my firm and all the customers who want to follow our tweets -- on their phone, computer, or other device? There is no downside, as long as you put thoughtful effort behind the initiative.
  3. "What capabilities should my firm have so that we can use the right tools to track topics and conversations being tweeted about in my industry, product or service area, and target market?"
Not So Fast
Over to Davenport, who holds the President's Chair in Information Technology and Management at Babson. He calls Twitter a passing fad, "this year's Second Life." He tells marketers, essentially, don't waste your time.
"Do serious marketers spend a lot of time and energy on Twitter campaigns? I doubt it. Sure, go ahead and play around with it -- it doesn't cost much. But I defy you to do serious brand management in 140-character messages. I defy you to prove that Twitter users are your typical customer -- unless you sell bubble tea or something similar -- or that their tweets are a true reflection of their relationship with your company."
I think Tom is wrong in calling Twitter a passing fad. It has the feel to me of something sustainable and reflects our growing need to connect with other people. But I'm not sure of its business applications. So I agree with Davenport to the following extent: Play around with Twitter. Ask your own customers who Tweet why they do and what kind of information -- if any -- they might like to get from you.

Is Twitter a marketing vehicle? Is it a great way to keep in touch with the shifting needs of customers? What do you think?

Addendum: Do CEOs care use social networking tools today? Thanks to my friends at Harvard Business Publishing for highlighting this survey from the Conference Board: Eight out of 10 companies attempt to manage their reputation risk, but only 34 percent of the executives surveyed said they regularly monitor social networking sites for information about their companies, and only 10 percent participate in them.

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.