They can use it as a marketing tool. But many execs don’t even know the micro-blogging service exists.
“Just had a cup of our Guatemala Casi Cielo … It means ‘almost heaven’ in Spanish,” a Starbucks manager wrote in a recent Twitter post.
The coffee giant is one of many U.S. companies using Twitter, the trendy micro-blogging platform, as a speedy marketing tool. “What are you doing?” is the simple question that Twitter users answer in short posts, or “Tweets,” from their computers or cellphones. Other Twitter users can respond to the posts, and discussion threads are created that can let companies monitor what customers are saying about them. Companies can also release news in Tweets. Internet marketing firm Hubspot estimates that 5,000 to 10,000 new Twitter accounts are opened each day.
Despite Twitter’s success in the U.S., the three-year-old company’s service hasn’t caught on in Europe. According to Twitter’s search tool, Twitter Scan, there is one account under Tesco, the U.K.’s largest retailer, but it has only one outside comment so far. The same goes for financial services firm HSBC, which has 18 followers but no status updates.
Most European companies haven’t even heard of Twitter, and some might think it’s a time waster. A spokeswoman for energy firm Total says that Chief Executive Christophe de Margerie has no idea what Twitter is. British Telecom says it doesn’t have a Twitter account and doesn’t plan to open one. Nestle‘s communications manager says using Twitter “just never came up within the group strategy.” In general, experts say Europeans don’t latch on to new social networking technologies as quickly as Americans.
“If the E.U. business community wants to have efficient conversations with customers and partners like U.S. companies have, they will get to Twitter, sooner, faster and in greater numbers,” says Shel Israel, author of the forthcoming book Twitterville.
Loic Le Meur, founder of video-blogging company Seesmic, agrees. “If European CEOs think it is a waste of time to Tweet, it is arrogant and a wrong step in their company’s strategy,” he says. “Twitter is an efficient way to get closer to your clients.”
Le Meur moved from France to San Francisco, where Twitter is based, to start Seesmic, which has been called the video version of Twitter. “I Tweet all day,” Le Meur says. “The other day I was complaining [on Twitter] about the fact that Sprint, my cellphone company, didn’t have the new Blackberry. Ten minutes later, Sprint replied. Twitter is like a free focus group; they can monitor what clients are saying in real time.”
And that can be good news if fast responses are needed. Ford Motor used Twitter on Dec. 9 to counter allegations that it was shutting down fan Web sites with cease and desist orders. A day later, General Motors used Twitter to squelch rumors that it was shutting down its Volt electric car factory. And Home Depot and Whole Foods used Twitter during last year’s U.S. Gulf Coast hurricanes to tell people where they could get emergency generators and fresh water.
But Twitter also has its downsides. Some company accounts have been hacked. Last September, Exxon Mobil discovered that “Janet,” who is not a company employee, was posting unauthorized Tweets on behalf of the oil giant.
And according to Benoit Raphael, who runs new media information site Le Post in France, Twitter’s technology needs to improve. “Twitter’s interfaces may be too complicated for users,” he says. “Twitter still has to create tools to make it easier for mainstream people. It may be too geeky and recent to be used by businesses.”