Social media: @How to manage a Twitter feed

More and more brands now have a presence on Twitter, but poor management of a feed can lead to disaster. Kate Magee outlines five key points to bear in mind.

Ocado's feed: full of apologies
Ocado's feed: full of apologies

It is every Twitter manager's worst nightmare. Last February a rogue staff member tweeted a homophobic remark on Vodafone's corporate Twitter account. There must have been some very red faces in HQ. But this slip-up shows managing a brand's presence on the social network successfully can be tricky. Here are five things every company should consider.

1. Decide who is responsible

Should the feed be run by an organisation's customer services, marketing or comms department? To find the answer, according to Kaper founder Chris McCafferty, first work out the purpose of your Twitter feed. Is it for customer service, publicising special offers, recruitment, for reaching and pitching to journalists, or is it to promote wider brand messages? Gatwick Airport, for example, is currently trialling its Twitter feed as a live customer services tool (see case study overleaf). Other brands may use their feeds to run competitions, inform people about company news, or give the brand a personality. 'If the objective for your Twitter stream is customer service, let the customer service experts run it. If it's a broader aim, PR and marketing people are better placed to run more engaging, content-based campaigns,' says McCafferty.

Whoever runs the feed, both PR and customer service departments need to be involved in the process. 'The challenge is to have the right monitoring and response systems in place so that customer service issues are quickly passed to customer service professionals,' says McCafferty. Similarly, PROs should be monitoring for any potential reputational issues that may emerge. A brand's social media presence does not belong to one person, but to a team of people who are often in different departments.

2. Who do you want to be?

Twitter managers need to balance the corporate tone with the language of Twitter. Work out your company's voice, then stick to it.

Lexis PR's digital consultant James Poulter advises PROs to take a lead from a brand's public persona in other media: 'No-one is expecting IBM or American Express to suddenly be bubbly on Twitter. It's different for every brand.' Blue Rubicon's head of digital Rob Blackie agrees: 'Brands can be serious but still have a human side. It's about knowing who you are. Don't try to act cool if you're not.'

Some companies deliberately put real people behind their feeds. Ford Motor Company, for example, has appointed Scott Monty to head up social media initiatives. The Ford main feed identifies Monty, and a handful of others who run the feed. They mark their contributions with their initials. 'Lots of people are more comfortable having a conversation with a person rather than a brand,' says Monty.

It is wise to get more than one person to be the face of the brand to avoid a problem if a high-profile figure leaves. 'It needs to be a process where people share the responsibility,' says Monty. Ford has a team of six who are a mix of product and corporate comms staff.

3. Keep it interesting.

Blackie says Twitter feed managers should research people's behaviour on the social networking site. 'I'm amazed how few people track links such as bit.ly links. It's a great way of finding out what people are interested in,' he says.

Once PROs have learned what people want, they need to make sure the content they produce is engaging. Willoughby PR's digital consultant Hannah Johnson, who manages Twitter feeds for five of her clients, says: 'People follow feeds that they find amusing. Every now and again, tweet something that will make your followers smile. It's something they're more likely to retweet than anything else.' She adds: 'One of Willoughby's most retweeted tweets of last week was about a survey revealing 2.5 million men can no longer see their penis. I think the headline "Free Willy" was what won so many retweets.'

Other ways to keep a feed fun include posting links, videos and pictures and retweeting your own followers. As Johnson says: 'Twitter is primarily a sharing tool. A tweet doesn't have to be plain text and should look to include other media. Also seek out funny people to follow. Firstly their material will save you having to draft all your own tweets, and by engaging with people, others will want to listen to you.'

And make sure you respond quickly. 'Conversation is a two-way process, typically in real time. The expectation in the social web is that companies should respond to their customers in a timely fashion,' says Speed MD Stephen Waddington.

4. Link up your social media

Twitter is only one social media platform, so PROs should make sure activity here fits with other social media initiatives. Blackie, who works for Facebook, is surprised at the lack of PROs who do this: 'Facebook may be one of my clients, but there are vastly more people on it than Twitter. If you go to most companies, more than half their staff are on Facebook, if not 100 per cent. Whereas it's quite rare, even in the comms industry, for the majority of staff to be on Twitter. Integrating your Twitter account with Facebook increases your audience with no extra effort.'

Hill & Knowlton's director of planning Candace Kuss agrees: 'We know the different platforms link together. Twitter is great, but it gets better with a content strategy behind it. So content platforms such as blogs, YouTube, Vimeo or Flickr might be needed.' This joined-up strategy should help ensure you are not mixing your messages across different sites. As Waddington argues: 'Authenticity is crucial. Respect relationships with customers. Be candid, and don't spin as you'll be caught out and lose the trust of your customers.'

5. Be prepared for the risk

Having a presence on Twitter allows customers, staff, journalists and pressure groups to find a company and make comments about it public. 'Whatever your rationale for setting up a feed, your customers will use it as a means of getting in touch with your organisation,' says Waddington. 'Have clear processes for sign-posting conversations to customer service, PR and sales. Examples of Twitter feeds that have become sales channels aren't hard to find.'

People who dislike your company are also able to make their comments public. Last year, for example, an anti-Starbucks group hijacked a promotion where contestants had to post pictures of themselves in the brand's cafes. The group was pictured with signs saying: 'I want a union with my latte.' Make sure the comms team is prepared to deal with any problems like this, and that staff from other departments know when to spot potential reputational problems. Also keep a close eye on what your Twitter feed says about your brand. At the time of writing, Ocado's feed had 15 customer service apology Tweets on the front page of its stream of about 20 tweets. As McCafferty says: 'Is this good or bad? It certainly doesn't make me want to use the service, but maybe it makes others feel like it's dealing with its issues.' 

CASE STUDY GATWICK AIRPORT

Client: Gatwick Airport

Agency: Rabbit

Date: May 2010 - ongoing

Background Gatwick Airport was sold by BAA to Global Infrastructure Partners in December 2009. Once the sale was complete the airport was keen to establish its identity in its own right. As part of a £1bn rebranding and investment programme, it wanted to position itself as the best airport for customer service in the South East. In May, Gatwick appointed Rabbit as its social media agency.

The plan Gatwick already had a Twitter feed, but the team was keen to move it from a marketing tool to an informational one, to help answer customer queries in real time. Six weeks ago, the airport put messages on check-in and information screens encouraging people in the airport to give feedback on Twitter while still in the airport. Rabbit is training operations staff to use Twitter themselves. By the end of the autumn, Twitter will become a 24/7 customer service tool, with someone able to respond outside normal working hours.

How does it work? The internal team and Rabbit have access to Twitter management tools (HootSuite) and a content management plan. This plan has flow charts to show what enquiries need to be dealt with immediately, and where queries should be directed if appropriate.

The team is a mixture of senior management, customer service, information and operations staff. A shift system is being set up. The airport receives around 100 tweets a day, but these will not all need a response. 'A lot of brands get their agencies to run their feeds for them. But I'm not a fan of agencies doing this for the long term. In-house teams can give a stamp of authenticity. Ninety-five per cent of Gatwick's tweets are done in-house. We have access to HootSuite and can respond on their behalf, but we tend to leave it to them,' says Rabbit's co-founder Dirk Singer.

PLANNING AHEAD THE SOCIAL TEAM

Candace Kuss

Director of planning/interactive strategy director EMEA, Hill & Knowlton

'Brands need more than someone just minding a Twitter account. This is the graphic I show to clients to explain the social team. A robust social team needs a general (overall brand strategy), as well as trained and personable community managers. Plus, you want people on the lookout for innovations in technology and new social platforms (reconnaissance) who have the passion for trying all the new applications (beta tester). Smart brands will have plans in place should there be an issue in the real word that starts to surface online. That's the fireman.'

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