Twitter, a booming micro-blogging service, is inspiring business to manage its message in 140 characters or less.
Its streams of short text messages, publicly broadcast over the web, are being treated as the new frontline of internet conversation. Companies including Ford and PepsiCo have been dousing public relations fires with pithy communication bursts to the Twitter community.
“There’s a rapid-fire element to Twitter that causes conversations to go viral when something bad happens with a company,” says Jackie Huba, co-founder of the Society for Word of Mouth, an organisation that monitors social media. “Companies that have a Twitter account are prepared. If something goes wrong they can respond.”
PepsiCo turned to Twitter this month after users began posting criticisms of a Pepsi Max advertisement, which depicted a cartoon calorie committing suicide.
Huw Gilbert, communications manager for PepsiCo International, “tweeted”, or posted a public message, in reply. “Huw from Pepsi here,” he wrote. “We agree this creative is totally inappropriate; we apologise and please know it won’t run again.”
Critics saw Mr Gilbert’s post, with one “tweeting” back: “Thank you … for having the guts to get on Twitter on behalf of Pepsi and give us an update on the suicide ad.”
Such personal interaction from a company representative helps defuse a crisis, says Ms Huba. “People like feeling like they’re being heard,” she says.
Scott Monty, head of social media for Ford Motors, used Twitter to deflect criticism away from the carmaker after it filed suit against an enthusiast website that was selling unauthorised Ford decals. Fans of the site posted angry messages but Mr Monty used Twitter to explain the company’s position.
“Part of my job is to humanise the company – you want to interact,” Mr Monty says.
Starbucks, Comcast, JetBlue and Home Depot are among companies using Twitter accounts to promote products and provide customer service.
Bob Pearson, head of communities and conversation for Dell, said his company had generated $1m in computer-related sales through alerts posted to Twitter.
San Francisco-based Twitter is also becoming a platform for a range of media and social networking start-ups using its tools to develop communities and content rapidly, and at low cost.