Time for the bike trade to Twitter?

Bike companies and bike shops are opening Twitter accounts at an ever-accelerating rate. The time is right to grab your biz name now and open up to the potential of Twittering, says Carlton Reid...
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It’s the website of the moment: Twitter.com. But why all the media fuss over a site used by celebs to broadcast when they’re eating toast?

Twitter is what you make of it. It can be serious and business-like, or frothy and funny. More and more bike shops, and bike companies, are getting involved. And those that do are reaping the first-mover rewards, maybe not yet in cash, but in grabbing an early user base which, in Twitter-speak, is ‘followers’.

Twitter is a conversational ‘social media’ tool, made of short postings. Updates of 140-characters or less are listed on a user’s Twitter page. Follow somebody and their ‘tweets’ appear in your viewing space. Remember, this isn’t just computer based viewing, smart phones get the info, too, allowing for portability of information sharing and gleaning. People with lots of followers use the service as a form of Google. No need to type something into the world’s favourite search engine –where results can be patchy and diverse –just ask your followers.

I’m constantly amazed at the practical usefulness of Twitter. I post as @carltonreid. When I need photos for a book, I ask and I get. When I want to flag a particular story on BikeBiz.com, I link from Twitter and loads of page views result. When I find a really useful news story on another site, I give it link love. Business users are also finding that linking Twitter to their websites is good for SEO: search engine optimisation. Google likes fresh info and there’s nothing fresher than Twitter info.

And the business case for using Twitter is growing. An independent coffee shop in Houston, Texas doubled its clientele through clever and proactive Twitter use. It suggested followers meet-up at the coffee shop, went viral in the local area and trade boomed. Independent coffee shops have to battle multiples and need to be flexible and creative, yet without a huge marketing budget. Sound familiar?

So, who or what is Twitter? California-based Twitter.com turned down a rumoured $500m all-stock offer from Facebook last year. A recession was clearly coming, why not cash out? Tech industry insiders believe the company –yet to turn a cent – was waiting for better offers.

Fans say Twitter is not burning dollar bills, and will become bigger than Facebook. Twitter’s user base is tripling in numbers in shorter and shorter timespans.

Twitter the company is tiny. It was founded by Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams of San Francisco podcasting company Odeo. Parent company Obvious Corp is angel-funded by investors including Jeff Bezos of Amazon. And there are just 30 employees.

Biz Stone told BikeBiz: “Twitter helps people find out what is happening right now, whether it’s among a group of friends or the whole world. As a real-time network of information, Twitter is becoming a relevant tool to more people every day.”

Twitter.com has attracted legions of third-party apps, complicating the interface for power-users. Ironically, many of these third-party apps make money, such as Tweetie for the iPhone, available for £1.75 on iTunes.

Despite being free to users, Twitter costs millions of dollars to run, with the long awaited revenue model has yet to appear. Shel Israel, author of the upcoming book Twitterville, said: “Twitter has a clear monetisation plan. It’s a business utility and will charge fees for letting companies like Dell sell computers efficiently. It will be ad free, and lucrative.”

A customer database of highly engaged users has value. And that value is increasing. Use of Twitter is growing fast. Currently there are six million members. 2009 is Twitter’s coming out year, its entrance into the mainstream. UK TV personalities like Jonathan Ross and Stephen Fry – and, of course, American legends like Lance Armstrong – have cottoned on that Twitter is more engaging than a blog, more interactive than broadcast media.

It’s like group-sending a text message to a few friends, but viewable by the world. Make those ‘Tweets’ pithy, memorable, funny, wise or useful and you’ll gather ‘followers’. Blogger Chris Brogan, one of Twitter’s so-called rock stars, said: “Twitter isn’t amazing. The ability to connect to many voices in a collaborative way is amazing.”

Unless you’re a Tour de France contender, there’s little use in knowing when Lance Armstrong has gone for a long bike ride. Nor any need to subscribe to the thoughts of the Twitterati. But we’re a social species and micro-blogging via Twitter is catching on fast.

Most of the six million people on Twitter have just a handful of followers and only follow friends, and a breaking news source (news often breaks on Twitter before anywhere else) and Twitterers with similar interests. Twitterers are known by their usernames, with the addition of @ on the front. Jonathan Ross is @wossy, Lance Armstrong has plumped for the more immediate @lancearmstrong.

Just as in the early days of the web, there’s been a name landgrab. @paulsmith is not unique enough to be still available (he’s an IT worker in Chicago, not the English fashion designer with a penchant for bikes) but if you’ve a distinctive name you could be in luck. Even if you never plan to use Twitter, it might still be wise to register for your business and personal name. It costs nothing to do this.

Twitter isn’t just for celebs, it can be a business tool. Stories of impressive ROI are getting easier to come by, with Dell Computers being the first big example of a corporation turning Tweets into turnover. A site-specific promotion saw Dell garner $1m+ in Twitter-trackable sales.

As a way of testing a market concept or pushing an exclusive offer Twitter is quicker than RSS, broader than SMS, and more immediate than websites.

Companies are starting to appoint Twitter wranglers. Ingersoll-Rand of the US, a $17bn Bermuda-incorporated multinational which owns Club Car golf cars and Thermo King freezer trucks, appointed Donna Tocci as its first social media manager in autumn 2008.

She said: “With the down economy and the need to keep eyeballs on their brand for lower costs, companies will turn more to social media. They will need intelligent, personable people to be the face of the firm to the digital audience; someone who understands that it’s not about talking at people, it’s about creating relationships.”

Boston-based Tocci is no stranger to fevered internet interaction between a brand and its customers. In 2004 she was PR manager at Ingersoll's bike lock brand Kryptonite. When a forum poster revealed he could open a high-security Kryptonite with a Bic pen, the company was bombarded with forum and blogger complaints. Kryptonite execs decided not to engage. After the firestorm, Tocci was allowed to roll out a PR response. But the damage was done and the brand had to be financially propped up by Ingersoll Rand.

Tocci now sees Twitter as “essential”, tweeting from work, too. “Listening and learning aren’t 9am-5pm activities,” she told BikeBiz.

But Twitter gets a bad name from mundane entries, making it a time sink.

“Indulging these distractions looks just like work,” blogged Mike Elgan, a former editor of Windows magazine. “The new, increasingly compelling distractions get piled on to older ones. When does the work get done? When do entrepreneurs manage their businesses?”

For Ann Handley, editor of Marketingprofs.com, a marketing resources and conferences firm based in Texas, Twitter is useful for marketing in a recession: “Dwindling budgets suddenly make low-cost social media look like the pretty girl at the ball.”

BikeBiz has a list of 600+ bike-related Twitter users here.

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