The first status update on Twitter ('Just setting up my twttr') was sent by co-founder Jack Dorsey on 21 March 2006. It came 130 years after the first successful telephone call, when Alexander Graham Bell's assistant distinctly heard the words: 'Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you.' History does not record how irritated Watson probably felt.
At first glance, I'm struck by the banality of both the statements; hardly 'one giant leap for a man'. Yet, while Twitter is often criticised for the trivial nature of its content, people forget that the vast majority of phone calls are of the non-earth-shattering 'get some milk on the way home' variety.
So the microblogging site that gives you just 140 characters to share your deepest thoughts is four years old. It has been hacked by the 'Iranian Cyber Army', turned down both Google and Facebook as suitors, launched a thousand croissants and become one of the internet's most talked-about brands - all without turning a bean in profit.
We don't care about that. We hear lots about Ashton Kutcher and Stephen 'I'm stuck in a lift' Fry on Twitter, and those celebrity brands have certainly found value in connecting directly with their fanbase. Astronauts tweet from space, babies from the womb. However, beyond those individuals, the question on marketers' lips is, has business found a way of making money from Twitter?
In the main, as with Facebook, business activity on Twitter is unfocused, lacks a clear reason for being there, and most importantly, has little benefit for customers. Yet, there are exceptions, where enterprising people are connecting to consumers for their mutual gain.
Dell has booked $6m in revenue and gained substantially in awareness of its outlet store. With more than 80 Dell-branded Twitter accounts, the company uses the channel for customer service, distributing coupons and exclusive offers to customers regionally.
Electronics retailer Best Buy adopted Twitter broadly across its organisation, launching its Twelpforce service with employees encouraged to answer technical queries from consumers via the channel. They are not paid to do this, but staff sign up via Best Buy's own interface and follow the company's well-crafted set of social media guidelines (available at bit.ly/bnATMN). Hundreds of queries are answered every day, with typical issues includ- ing product recommendations and customer support.
US airline jetBlue uses it to 'break down the artificial barriers between customers and the individuals who work at companies', and reports that when customers are better-informed about delays and other problems, their treatment of front-line staff improves.
KogiBBQ in Los Angeles, a mobile vendor of Korean/Mexican fusion food (you can't make this stuff up) uses Twitter to let its 58,000 loyal fans know when and where its trucks will be. So if you're in the market for a Stinky Leprechaun Burrito (there's no explanation of the Irish content), all you need to know is the 'Alibi room grill is fixed!! Come on back and grab some gruba!!'
What distinguishes these successful brands is their eagerness to connect with consumers. The overwhelming majority of conversations are about them, rather than with them; and they flourish by being an interlocutor, rather than a broadcaster. It speaks volumes about their openness, and puts a human face on the corporation.
Mass marketers who dismiss the traffic volume as irrelevant are missing one important thing: both Bing and Google index Twitter, and the up-to-date nature of the content drives it right up the results. So when consumers search for your brand, you'd better hope the conversation is good.
Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level
30 SECONDS ON ... THE IRANIAN CYBER ARMY
- A group calling itself the 'Iranian Cyber Army' hijacked Twitter last December. It put up a message redirecting users to a page displaying a green flag and messages in English and Farsi denouncing US efforts to 'incite the Iranian people'.
- The attack left the Twitter service unavailable for about two hours.
- The political motivations of the 'Army' were unclear. However, Twitter was used to organise protests by the Iranian opposition following the country's disputed elections last year. The hackers also appear to have hijacked an opposition website.
- In January, China's most popular internet search engine, Baidu, and Amsterdam-based Persian-language radio station Radio Zamaneh were also hijacked by hackers claiming to be from the same group. Users were redirected to a page similar to that used for the Twitter hack.
- The attacks were carried out by targeting DNS records. The websites' own services were not affected.