Dr. Bates Talkback: Building brands and boosting sales with Twitter

Dr. Andree K. Bates suggests ways Twitter can be used as a valuable marketing channel

Does Twitter really provide a business opportunity?

Many Twitter naysayers contend that the whole exercise is pointless.

Isnt it a bit narcissistic and boring to keep everyone appraised of your lunch menu and whats happening at work?

But for many, especially for business users of Twitter, it goes way beyond simply updating friends on what youre doing.

Those who support the tool, and use it extensively, proclaim its great power in communication.

When it comes to the world of buying and selling, some major players stand by Twitter and advocate interesting uses.

Dell has created a number of Twitter profiles, each focused on providing followers new deals; DellOutlet, for example, posts recently refurbished Dell computer offers.

Starbucks posts new offers and also participates in threaded discussions with its Twitter followers.

Zappos uses Twitter to connect on a personal level with its employees and customers, highlighting new deals, interesting facts, and funny stories; activity is not a sales driver but a brand builder, driving repeat customers and word-of-mouth.

Pharma and Twitter

Physicians are an active user group of Twitter, and theyre working to push the boundaries of what to Tweet.

An oncology surgery at Henry Ford Hospital was broadcast to the Twitterverse, giving short, real-time updates on the procedure as a learning exercise in removing a kidney tumor without taking out the entire kidney.

Doctors, medical students, and the simply curious around the world tuned in.

This type of sharing will undoubtedly increase over time, especially as the medical student population grows increasingly fond of social networking and Twitter.

Patients also are using Twitter, having conversations about drug side effects, clinical trials, approvals, and recommendations.

So, what about pharma?

Pharma companies have been hesitant.

This is probably largely driven by lack of knowledge about the channel, as well as legal and regulatory fears.

Nonetheless, some intrepid pharma companies have ventured into the unknown waters.

Boehringer Ingelheim uses a point person, John Pugh, director for global corporate communications/external communications, to personalize and participate.

He posts press releases, links to Internet-based information about disease areas, and articles followers might find interesting.

Johnson and Johnson has set up an account focused on personalizing the company and building reputation; a real company member tweets and interacts with the public on a variety of topics.

AstraZeneca focuses on injecting information into the conversation, tweeting on access programs, healthcare reform, and strategy.

Novartis tweets from its corporate communications center in Switzerland, and focuses on sending out press releases.

These beginning moves are slow starts, but are examples for other pharma companies to watch and learn from.

The Twitter opportunity

Ultimately, evangelists and pundits alike agree that companies, especially pharma companies, can use Twitter as a way to research, interact with, and assist customers, proactively build relationships and brands, understand more about the market, and learn from others in the field.

Its a way to open up dialogue, knock down the growing perception that pharma companies dont care what their customers and peers think, and start to build trust.

With this potential, and taking a composite picture of what others have done with Twitter, pharma companies can easily come up with a list of activities to try.

Before diving in, just as with any other new tactic, companies first must think about strategy.

Why do you want to use Twitter? What specifically are you looking to accomplish?

By far, the most successful Twitter ventures are those that keep the role and needs of the customer in mind.

People on Twitter, just like other social networks, dont want to be sold or marketed to.

Your goals should revolve around building relationships and providing value for customers.

Another consideration is determining your corporate persona.

Companies can opt to stick with the brand name, taking on a company personality that stays constant, or they can take it a step further, using and identifying specific employees.

These individuals not only evangelize the brand, but also engage in personal interests and communication.

No matter how you decide to create a presence on Twitter, the necessary next and ongoing step is to listen.

Follow the ebb and flow of conversation and you can get a great feel for what content users like, what is important to them, and how you can fit in.

Conduct searches on key topics, like your brand or your condition area, and you can get a highly concentrated and natural discussion from those on the ground.

Building brands, boosting sales

With this planning as a foundation, how can you and your company use Twitter to build brands and boost sales?

Test new ideas. Want immediate feedback from the real world? Businesses are using Twitter as a place for thought balloons all the time, and receiving information that can help mold new products and services.

Publish news and info. One of the best parts of Twitter is its instantaneous reach. Take advantage of an interconnected network to blast your up-to-the-minute news on approvals or send out missives on legislative acts under review.

Distribute promotions. Some of the biggest business presences on Twitter are revered for their sharing of coupons, deals, and other goodies with customers.

Create brand personality. Extend your social media and blogging strategy with Twitter and you can more fully create the brand personality youre striving to impart.

Engage in customer service. Offer your presence as a way for participants to get questions answered, get thoughts on specific products, and troubleshoot.

Keep them guessing. Include a wide variety of information in your Twitter stream, mixing information posts, links to other peoples posts, replies to questions, alerts, and more.

Remember that Twitter should be another way to add value for your followers and customers.

Tweet when you find opportunities to do just that, rather than simply promoting your company and brands, and you can find great marketing benefit.

What to tweet

To effectively create brand personality, engage followers and prospects, and build something unique, your presence should be constant and ever changing.

Instead of answering the question What are you doing?, answer the question, What has your attention?

Ask questions; Twitter is great for getting opinions.

Tweet about other peoples ideas, products, and services, a great way to develop networks and conversations.

Give advice when you do mention your products.

Share the human side of your company with pictures and personal posts.

Mention events, both your own and others, your audience might find interesting.

Start contests: The first three people who answer this trivia question get

Reply to others (using @ and their Twittername); the more personal the reply, the higher the impact.

Point to your new blog posts and promote other peoples blog posts that are of interest.

Make it meaningful

To really create value with your tweets, and to ensure content thats continually engaging and attractive, keep consistency.

Produce at least 10 tweets a week to maintain an active, current presence that people will trust.

Also keep conversations to a group level; for private conversations, stick to direct messages.

This not only keeps clutter out of the main communication, but also prevents too much information being revealed.

Always remember that tweets are on the record; everything you tweet is searchable on the Internet, which aids keyword searches but also creates a public record of any missteps.

Follow those who follow you; being connected in this way allows you to send direct messages when needed.

This practice can also help prevent discomfort in the Twittersphere; if you proactively follow others without their initial interest, you run the risk of appearing like a spammer.

Above all, prevent Twitter addiction.

Twitter can easily turn into a time-sink. Beginners especially can feel the need to read every single Tweet, eating up hours of time that should be devoted elsewhere.

To prevent addiction, many experienced participants invest preplanned blocks of time to catch up and converse.

Filtering your Twitter traffic can also help; TweetDeck allows you set up groups and filter conversations for specific topics and specific people.

Twitter can be a highly entertaining and highly effective way to build a brand, if you keep perspective.

Twitter can resemble a cocktail party conversation in many ways, limited to small talk and meaningless chitchat.

However, if you take it to the next level, with appropriate content and follow-up, you can make it meaningful.

Dr. Andree K. Bates is CEO of Eularis, which applies analytics to determine the sales impact of marketing programs.

To read Boehringer Ingelheim director for global corporate communications/external communications John Pughs thoughts on Twitter, see To Tweet or not to Tweet? That is the pharma marketers question.

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