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Software // Social
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5/28/2009
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Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Microblogs Get Down To Business

Twitter and Yammer can offer companies a free focus group and a cheap option for collaboration.

Sure, you can use Twitter to keep up with Ashton Kutcher and Oprah. But can you actually do anything useful with it, something that justifies using it on the job?

You bet. Twitter and similar services are being adopted by companies such as JetBlue and Alcatel-Lucent to help improve customer service and teamwork across business units and continents.

The tools are easy to configure and use, and it's simple to find connections with other people with interests similar to your own, be they personal or professional. As a customer service tool, Twitter's advantage is that almost everything people say on the service is public and easy to find using Twitter's built-in search. That makes Twitter an instant focus group, made up of millions of people, many of whom are your customers.

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JetBlue thinks of Twitter as part of its corporate communications function, which encompasses media relations, internal communications, and dealing with bloggers. "We think of bloggers and microbloggers as being citizen journalists," says Morgan Johnson, manager of corporate communications for JetBlue, who heads up the airline's Twitter efforts. Twitter users don't have the same reach as traditional journalists, but there are a lot more of them. "Our primary use is just watching and listening," Johnson says. "Twitter can easily be one of the best market research tools available for you." Companies are desperate to get customer feedback, but they find it hard to come by. "On any of our flights, we send out 10 e-mails requesting feedback, and we only get a few of those back. That sort of information is important to us," Johnson says.

Twitter is a free hosted microblogging service that subscribers use to send and read short messages, or tweets. Messages are limited to 140 characters. Users can restrict delivery to their circle of friends or, by default, allow anyone to access them. Users send and receive tweets via the Twitter Web site, Short Message Service, or external apps. The service is free on the Internet, but SMS users are subject to phone service fees.

People often send Twitter messages spontaneously about companies they're doing business with, whether complaining about a delayed flight or expressing gratitude for fast customer service. Companies can overhear that conversation by punching their company names into Twitter Search.

That's particularly helpful in industries such as the airlines that struggle with a bad reputation. "In customer satisfaction surveys, the airline industry as a whole has lower ratings than the IRS," Johnson says. "I take it as a personal point of pride that the majority of mentions we see are positive, but we always want to make sure it goes higher."

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Zappos.com, an online retailer, is using Twitter to make personal connections among employees, and between the company and its customers. Employees use it to organize meet-ups outside of work, and customers can use Twitter to see what the corporate culture is like, says Aaron Magness, who works in business development and marketing at Zappos.

"We just use it as a means of talking and letting people know who we are," Magness says. Of Zappos' 1,400 employees, 430 are on Twitter, including CEO Tony Hsieh. To help get the word out about the company and its employees' personalities, Zappos created a public Web site, twitter.zappos.com, built on the Twitter API to consolidate employee tweets. Among the recent tweets was this from the CEO: "At airport headed to our warehouse in KY. I get stage fright in front of so many shoes. I will just imagine them without clothes." Another pointed a customer to Zappo's product return information.

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