The micro-blogging website is this year’s internet phenomenon, so can Twitter form part of a serious marketing and customer insight strategy for retailers? Joanna Perry investigates

It’s become famous as the website where you can follow the stream of thought of some of the UK’s best-loved celebrities. But can a site where you can only send messages that are 140 characters long really be useful to retailers?

If the experiences of the retailers that Retail Week contacted through Twitter are anything to go by, the answer is clearly yes.

The site now receives more visits from UK internet users than almost all of the newspapers that are online in the UK, according to online analysis company Hitwise.

Asos marketplace and community director James Hart signed up to Twitter in June last year, and says the e-tailer’s activity on the site really took off at the end of October. Hart estimates traffic to its Twitter pages is up by more than 1,000 per cent since Christmas, and traffic from Twitter to Asos’s site has increased by a similar level.

About 10 per cent of Asos head office staff have Twitter accounts, and Hart says that this is increasing on a daily basis. Each Asos member explains what they do in their profile, and the e-tailer has developed guidelines for those tweeting in the company name, although Hart says these are really just common sense.

He thinks it is important to show the personalities of Asos staff, rather than just running a faceless corporate account thatbroadcasts messages and never tries to engage customers in conversations.

A launch pad

Twitter is also proving valuable to Shop Direct Group while it is in the process of relaunching the Woolworths brand online. Group property director Matthew Jacques is forging ahead with Twitter as part of Team Woolies, and has been tweeting on behalf of the team since the company acquired the brand at the start of this year. He writes a handful of tweets a day and spends about an hour each morning and evening catching up with what others have been saying about the brand online.

Jacques says that Shop Direct wanted to join in the conversation occurring online about the “old Woolworths” and what potential customers would like to see from the new Woolworths. With this in mind, he says: “If I just sent out a load of discount codes then my followers would desert me.”

In the longer term, once Shop Direct has relaunched Woolworths online, Jacques hopes other members of staff involved with the brand will also join Twitter with their own points of view.

At spare parts e-tailer eSpares, brand manager Samara Zittin is also focusing on Twitter for two-way interaction. She says: “We try to keep broadcasting our specials and offers down to a minimum, as we find that these tweets are usually a one-way communication and can feel a bit spammy.”

She adds that two-way interaction is crucial for an online-only business. “Consumers want to know that when they order online they’ll get exactly what they need to fix their appliance, in the timescales required and from a brand they can trust. Trust in the market is built through two-way interaction,” she says.

Jacques chooses not to use any of the automatic messaging options to generate responses to people who sign up to his feed. He says: “Nothing turns people off more than there not being a human behind it.”

Retailers are also closely following what’s said about them on Twitter, and in some cases using it as a channel for customer service. Carphone Warehouse online help manager Guy Stephens has an account in his own name – @guy1067 – which clearly states who he works for and what he does. Carphone also has a corporate account with the site at @carphoneware.

Stephens says that this allows him to express a human side, rather than the corporate feeling of the Carphone account, and also allows him to show empathy for customers when they are having problems. He says: “Customers sometimes use Twitter as a way to vent their frustration when they feel that no one is listening. Normally they are really pleased to have been approached, and think that it is fantastic that I am on the site and talking to them.”

Help is at hand

If customers have service issues, whether they need general assistance or are an existing customer with a specific problem, Stephens will try to help. This may be as simple as sending a customer a link to Carphone’s store locator on its website, or a link to a product comparison search.

For more serious problems he is able to escalate the issue through Carphone’s normal customer service channels.
He says: “I use TweetDeck and have set it up to follow variations on Carphone Warehouse and CPW, etc. I have a look at anything that comes in. I stay clear of out-and-out sales opportunities, but will thank people for positive comments.” TweetDeck is an application you can use to manage your Twitter feeds and monitor what others are doing on the site in one place.

Stephens also keeps tabs on other social networking sites such as Facebook, and more specialist complaints forums that have sprung up on the web. However, he says that most online contact with customers is through Twitter.

Zittin also seeks out customers who have problems she might be able to help with. “At work I use TweetDeck to manage our account and have searches set up for different query types on broken appliances. This is how I keep my eye open for relevant issues that I may be able to help with,” she explains.

Mydeco is another retailer using the site to engage with its customers, for both customer service and more general conversation. Mydeco marketing manager Jo Casley says the e-tailer considers Twitter very important, because a major aspect of what it does is focused on building its community, and that includes going wherever on the web its customers choose to be.

Casley believes that Twitter is used differently to other social networking sites and people are happy to engage with others they don’t know around a particular area of interest. Mydeco will send tweets about new content on its site, ask its followers questions and update on special offers – but only things that are out of the ordinary.

Hart says Twitter is also a great way to connect internally – especially for Asos. The fast-growing fashion brand has even recruited an intern through the site, and he says that she has made friends in the office and understands the business better as a result of making contact with new colleagues that way.

It was recently reported that Twitter could start charging brands for enhanced corporate accounts, but for the moment the service remains free. While it stays this way, why not set up an account and find out what your customers are doing?