Andrew Walmsley on Digital: brands make a hash of using Twitter

Andrew Walmsley
Andrew Walmsley

Brands that use Twitter clumsily can risk alienating the service's active and organised user base.

Fame, praise, untold amounts of free PR and content ‘going viral' - these are the glittering prizes held out to those who use social media effectively. Where there was a hurdle, a velvet rope now lures in marketers with the promise of VIP status.

However, it is dangerous path to tread. The unwary slip up very publicly, and nowhere more so than on Twitter.

Still in its relative infancy (it has
45m users, compared with Facebook's 250m), Twitter remains an experimental platform. The global Twitter stream moves fast, with more than 3m tweets posted every day, and the creators of
the service have yet to establish a clear strategy for generating revenue from it.

This culture of experimentation, myriad third-party applications and often puzzling lingo can make Twitter treacherous. A sure-fire way to attract the wrong kind of attention is to use the platform inappropriately.

@HabitatUK is the UK's most highly-publicised example of Twitter malpractice. After setting up an account, the company promptly began tweeting updates on sale items and, like many other users, it put ‘hashtags' at the start of each tweet. Hashtags are words preceded with a ‘#' that help users to find relevant postings on Twitter.

Habitat's faux pas was to use tags that were not related to the items it was selling. Instead, it included currently popular terms - or ‘trending topics' - such as #mousavi, #iranelection and #iphone. After a deluge of negative press, global Twitter outrage, a public apology and blame being heaped on an ‘over-enthusiastic intern', the retailer has reassessed its Twitter strategy and
is quietly trying to rebuild trust.

In a similar vein, companies such as Moonfruit, Lenovo and Dell have all run Twitter competitions where entrants had to mention the brand names as a hashtag. Web designers Moonfruit attracted more than 400 tweets a minute, but earned the disapp­roval of many Twitter users for inciting spam and diluting important messages. Twitter acknowledged the company's misuse of the website and promptly removed it from the top listings - the first time the site's administrators had intervened in this way.

While it is primarily used as a one-to-many promotional channel, Twitter can form an effective part of a brand's online PR, customer service, market research, networking and customer acquisition strategy.

Starbucks uses Twitter primarily as
a customer support system, replying to questions and proactively assisting with any negative comments made about the brand and its products. Its Twitter account (@starbucks) complements and links to its other social profiles and has more than 260,000 followers.

SkyNews' main Twitter account provides breaking news, but its ‘Twitter correspondent', @RuthBarnett, engages users to get the inside scoop. The infor­mation and images gathered are then used to update the main news feed. This demonstrates how Twitter can be employed as a two-way medium.

Those that fail to prepare properly prior to executing their Twitter strategy should be warned that other users are fighting back. They have banded together to share information on Twitter spammers at One company concerned at the damage done by clumsy commercial use of the platform has launched a campaign to defeat what it calls ‘Twitter litter'.

The lure of easy fame is an attractive prospect for many - Channel 4's Big Brother is proof of that. However, those with responsibility for brand guardian-ship should be circumspect before risking their reputation for a few minutes of potentially negative fame. As ever with online marketing, a little planning goes a long way.

Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level


30 seconds on Habitat

  • Habitat was founded in 1964 by designer-turned-restaurateur Terence Conran. Its first store was on Fulham Road, Chelsea.
  • The aim of the company was to offer ‘young moderns' contemporary design at affordable prices that would allow them to express their aspirations through their choice of home décor.
  • Conran has said the main reason for the shop's initial success was that Habitat was one of few places that sold cheap pasta storage jars just as the market for dried pasta took off.
  • The business grew rapidly during the 60s, opening a chain of shops across the UK. Its first overseas store opened in Paris in 1973.
  • In 1981, the company was floated on the London Stock Exchange and a year later it merged with Mothercare Group. In 1986, this company merged with British Home Stores to form Storehouse.
  • Since 1992, Habitat has been owned by Ikano, a Swedish group of companies owned by the Kamprad family, who also founded IKEA.


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