Wednesday, December 17, 2008

To Follow or Not To Follow. A Brand Dilemma.

By Lon S. Cohen

After my post about brands on Twitter at where I took the position that they should and can thrive there, I got a great follow up question from @amykchulik via Twitter. While I was crafting my reply I found that it was going to take a few more than 140 characters to do the topic justice.

Over multiple Tweets @amykchulik asked about brands on Twitter and the strategy (for lack of a better word) of following back those that follow them:

amykchulik: Hi Lon -Great article on brands using Twitter! I am curious as to your thoughts about brands following followers back on Twitter –

amykchulik: Do you think it's essential and that not following others back, or picking & choosing who they follow back as a non-company-related

amykchulik: person might, is a reflection on their company & a rejection to that person/potential customer? Do they have a greater responsibility

amykchulik: to treat all as a customer/reciprocate? I've love to know your thoughts. Sorry for the long messages. Thanks!

(First, I want to say, Aw shucks! Thanks @amykchulik for the compliment on my article.)

It’s no surprise that I was somewhere in the middle when it came to answering this question and it was more than just a yes or no. Brands come in all shapes and sizes. Some are global behemoths while others are small and locally minded. Some are specific to an industry and others to a particular interest group. Many want to appeal to as many people as possible. I am sorry to say that there is no one size fits all when it comes to following back when you are a brand on Twitter. (For that matter, there is no one size fits all for anyone on Twitter.) I have outlined a few of many ways you can go about this question of whether to follow everyone or not on Twitter and what it means. (Or you can save time, skip down to the end and see where I throw the whole thing out the window.)

Still with me? OK. Here it goes:

The Auto-Follow Variable:

I thought of many instances where a brand might want to strategically follow only a few people, one that comes to mind is the auto-follow feature. If I am auto followed by one of the huge personalities on Twitter then they will start to see my Tweets automatically and may be engaged before they either tune out or block my brand from their stream. So a brand would probably do well to start by following some big names in the Twitterverse.

For whatever reason people like to auto-follow, it is their own choice. Personally I do not. Some people like the huge stream of Tweets and thrive on it. I can’t process information that quickly no matter what tool I use. But luckily, some either auto-follow or manually follow just about everyone that follows them. If you chose the right influencers on Twitter then following them to match your goals on Twitter would be a great idea. (For the record, I have never used auto-follow and apparently it is not even a public feature but one that you have to request.)

The Auto-Follow Caveat:

This would probably be best for smaller brands. Target some very popular Tweeple that match your audience. Follow them. Watch what they do and if a moment comes up, engage like the Enterprise going Warp Factor 5. That said, you can also gain followers by @ replying to people (wisely!) and seeing what happens if you have patience. For big, gigantic brands, this is probably not needed. Just publishing your Twitter Account on your website, company blogs or specific advertising may do the trick.

The Media Equation:

Say you are a Media Company. Now I know that we’re all media companies in one way or another with our blog, Twitter, Delicious and YouTube RSS Feeds but take a large media company like the New York Times. For the most part they want to transmit their content to as many places as possible. Following back people only places false importance on the people you follow since all you are doing is re-feeding your news, videos, pictures, etc. through an auto publisher to your Twitter Account. For large media companies I’d say, don’t get caught up in who to follow and not follow. Following many, many people may not be the best tactic. Keep it simple. Keep it safe. As old Gandalf used to say.

For example, below are two media companies and their follow stats:

Name: The New York Times
Following: 32
Followers: 15,480

Name: CNET
Following: 2
Followers: 9,574

The Media Caveat:

My caveat for the Media Equation is that if you have your official Twitter accounts under different reporters’ names or specific customer service channels, then of course, it’s best to have individual follow strategies as you see fit. But in that case it is a personal choice not one that necessarily reflects on the brand itself.

The Customer Service Calculation:

You are a brand. You have a specific reason for being on Twitter. It’s not to expand your brand’s narrative into a new Social Networking channel to create awareness or seem hip. It’s just to be there when people are looking for you and want help. In this case I’d say go with both guns blazing. Follow everyone whom could possibly be a customer, a potential customer or a customer’s father’s, friend’s brother’s cousin’s former roommate. What does that make you and that customer? Absolutely nothing. But in this case, when a question comes up you can pick and choose out of your own stream to answer questions, head off vicious roomers and make every feel like you are that desperate person who wants to be friends with them, because that’s who you are. You want to know everyone even if they don’t want to know you. Rev the ol’ follow button up to Ludicrous Speed.

For example look at two well-known brands. They follow everyone. Maybe even you too:

Name: Frank Eliason (Comcast Director of Digital Care)
Following: 6,100
Followers: 6,107

Name: CEO
Following: 28,125
Followers: 24,465

Like two big, shaggy dogs, these guys follow everyone who follows them and then some in many cases. Not coincidentally they are both famous for their Customer Service on Twitter.

I’d also say that if you are a retailer with a very wide appeal and especially if your business is on the web (who’s isn’t these days, really) then this is probably a good strategy. My best example:

The Customer Service Caveat:

None really. Customer Service should follow as many people as it can. But be careful not to abuse that and start thinking you are there to be all their friends and talk to them all, responding to every single Tweet about the weather in Des Mois (Unless you happen to have an office in Des Mois.)

And Finally,

The Specific Brand Axiom:

If you have a brand that is not a big national media company, or a customer service nut (though we all should be customer service nuts—but that’s another story), or an enourmous brand name that’s been around for hundred and fifty years then you may want to craft your own follow strategy. Here’s where it gets iffy. For the most part, everything I read about etiquette on Twitter or Twitterquette says that you should not be too concerned that people aren’t following you back, or answering your @replies right away, or answering them at all, or talking to you. Twitter is not email. It’s not IM. People don’t expect that you are going to engage them and have specific conversations with every single person on there. It’s just not possible and it’s understood.

The Specific Brand Caveat:

Just don’t go insulting people with your Tweets. Don’t tell @obilon that you’re not following @joe_blow because you think his Tweets are blasé. You still are a brand and need to protect your image. There are many Twitterquette articles out there to guide new brands on Twitter in that subject.

The Sum of All Tweets

I could have saved you a lot of time from reading this post by just telling you up front that it just doesn’t matter. In the end, there are multiple ways a brand can attack its follower strategy.This is what I meant when I said in my last article that in a new media space, new media rules still apply. You have to learn the audience and the way people are using Twitter. Brands can’t worry too much on Twitter (or many other Social Media spaces) that they are “insulting” people because they are not being “friends” with them. It doesn’t work like that all the time. You can selectively befriend people on Twitter without risking a backlash of complaints from others. It is a social network. People are connected by degrees of separation to almost everyone else on the network. That’s the point.

There are so many exceptions to my suggestions that this article could have been written from the exact opposite position on every point and there would be plenty of data to prove it. I thought of adding IMHO after every single paragraph but thought it overkill.

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