Rachel Parkin: Tweet and meet way to customers

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I think you'd have to have been on another planet for the past few weeks to have missed the hype that's exploded around Twitter!

I think you'd have to have been on another planet for the past few weeks to have missed the hype that's exploded around Twitter!It's part of serious retail chains' conversations, it's in the news and even Stephen Fry loves it. So, what's it all about?

Twitter is a micro blogging website, and it's this year's internet phenomenon. But can it be part of a serious marketing strategy for retailers?

So, we all know the celebrities love it, partly because they get to control their own words, rather than having them come through the voice of their spokesman, and it's rather like following someone's stream of thought.

The messages that you can send can only be 140 characters long – that's a couple of sentences to you and me. So, while you might be able to distill the essence of your idea to two sentences, can you communicate it?

The old business idea was that you should be able to communicate the nuts of your business in a speech that you could tell someone in the time it took to ride up six floors in an elevator - ie. about one minute. Now, you could simply ask: Your idea – tweet me it?

Anyway, once ASOS took it up, everyone else started to take some notice. ASOS is interested in Twitter from the point of view of engaging customers in conversations, and not appearing as a faceless corporate account. So, far 10 per cent of its head office staff have Twitter accounts.

From a consumer's point of view, it's an interesting phenomenon as it almost redresses the balance between consumers and faceless large companies, sometimes even bypassing the old call centre shuffle.

The Shop Direct group, who are the people behind the launch of Woollies, are using Twitter to get some interest and listen to what others are saying about the brand online. So, for them it's about having a point of view and listening to others.

Carphone Warehouse's online help manager has his own Twitter account that he uses to express a human side and empathy for customers when they are having a problem with Carphone Warehouse, as well as them having a corporate account.

The message seems to be that retailers are using Twitter to engage with their customers, for both customer service issues and to initiate more general conversations. Retailers are either focusing on building communities, to launch something, get feedback on something, like a new website, or engage with their customers. Not, interestingly enough, for selling, or, at least, not exclusively.

The world famous marketer Seth Godin, , said that we all want to be part of some tribe, to be heard and that to be effective, all a tribe needs is a shared interest and a way to communicate. He also said that marketing is the act of telling stories about the things we make, do or create – stories that sell and, more importantly today, perhaps in our virtual world, stories that spread.

This is how Skype spread around the world. Skype understood that overthrowing the rule of the phone companies was too big a project for a small company without a ton of money.

But if they could get all their followers to connect to one another and spread the word, they could bring about huge changes.

In the end, all retailers are trying to build a group or community, and if that includes going where the customers choose to be, then we're all going to find ourselves tweeting away or twittering.