Why Twitter Is a Big Win for Small Businesses
Twitter is used by businesses of all shapes and sizes for customer service, lead generation, public relations, marketing, crowdsourcing, sales and sharing up-to-date information. Successes aren’t universal, though. Many businesses find it difficult to overcome the learning curve, learn the Twitter lingo, gain a following and sustain interesting conversation while providing value for followers.
For this installment of the Small Business Round Table Series, we brought three small biz insiders together to talk about the ins and outs of using Twitter for small business growth, in hopes of nailing down a few notes on best practices. Our knowledgeable round table attendees included:
- Chanel Huston, owner of Boutique de Bandeaux, an Etsy shop selling handmade couture-inspired hair accessories for thick, curly and kinky natural hair
- Lev Ekster, owner of Cupcake Stop, “New York’s First Mobile Gourmet Cupcake Shoppe,” founded in June 2009 and now complimented by a local fleet of cupcake trucks
- Alexandra Moskovitz, marketing manager at Epicurean Management, owners of Italian restaurantsdell’anima and L’Artusi, and Anfora wine bar
The attendees shared their thoughts on starting, maintaining and growing a Twitter presence. Read on to see what they had to say.
1. Why did your business join Twitter?
Huston: “I started using Twitter in October 2009. My boyfriend was the one who kept pushing me to use it, because he works at a record label, and they were using it to promote their artists, and he thought it was a great way to reach fans and interact with people. So, he kept pushing me to get it and helped me set it up. I was on a message board for natural hair first, called Black Hair Media, and it turned out that a lot of the girls were on Twitter. Once I got on Twitter, I found out that there was a big natural hair community that would meet and give tips and secrets to each other.”
Ekster: “For me, it seemed like a no-brainer, because we had a mobile food truck that was changing locations and menu items, so I just wanted to update people on where we’d be. Now, every food truck is on Twitter.”
Moskovitz: “I used Twitter with another wine shop at my previous job, and now it’s kind of just a no-brainer for restaurants and hospitality — it’s really another method of hospitality, not only for updating on what dishes and special events we have, but responding to and engaging with our customers. We can reach out to new people and follow other restaurants to see what’s going on. It’s a new level of interaction, and it also pushes the restaurants to more than just the [in-restaurant experience].”
2. What’s the top reason your business uses Twitter?
Huston: “My shop is on Etsy right now, and I get a lot of direct traffic from Etsy, but not necessarily my target market. Twitter helps me find the people who are actually going to be interested in my products, who have the disposable income to spend on them and have the hair type that’s going to be appropriate for my products.
“Finding people on Twitter is actually easy, but tedious to set up. I started by making announcements on the message board that I frequented to let everybody know that they could now follow me on Twitter. And then, once I was on Twitter, I’d find [Twitter accounts for] websites, like Naturally Curly, who have a target audience similar to mine, and I’d follow their followers. Or I’d add people who were following natural hair blogs likeAfrobella. [My following] just kind of grew from there.”
Ekster: “I don’t know if there’s a single, main reason [why I use Twitter], but I guess it all comes down tohaving a rapport and dialogue with our customers, an ongoing conversation with them. But then, things stem from that. So, you’ll get reviews — either positive and negative — and menu and flavor suggestions, for example.
“It all just boils down to having a face and a voice to the company, where the customer feels that you’re reachable. With a bigger company, you don’t know who the owner is, you don’t know how to reach them, you feel like beyond the suggestion box in the store, there’s nothing else you can do. But [with social media], you get an instant response.”
Moskovitz: “We want to establish a dialogue and level of engagement with everyone. Each [of our Twitter accounts] has its own personality, so you almost feel like you know the restaurant as a person, or the people behind it.”
3. How do you choose when to respond to a tweet?
Ekster: “If [the tweet] is a direct question to us, I’ll respond 99% of the time. And I like to follow people. We have 14,500 followers, and we follow 12,000 people, just so I can pick up on comments, views, and everything.
“Sometimes it’s not really appropriate to get involved, so you have to pick and choose when it’s really relevant without badgering people and being annoying. For example, if it’s two people talking saying that they’ll meet at Cupcake Stop at 3 p.m., I don’t want to be like, ‘Yes, please come!’ But sometimes I will. It’s just a spontaneous decision on my part sometimes. But at the same time, you don’t want to overdo it.”
Moskovitz: “I like to respond to everything at this point, and we’ve been pretty lucky that we pretty much have [only] positive responses. We just try to be as relevant as possible.”
Huston: “I respond to everything now. It’s at a manageable point right now — I have a little over 3,000 followers. For the most part, anything that someone tweets to me, I respond personally to.”
4. Who tweets from your business’s Twitter account?
Huston: “It’s just me. I’m the only one — I don’t have any employees.”
Ekster: “From day one, it’s been me. Everybody always tries to convince me to give that responsibility up to somebody else, but I just think it’s so important . I like to think that there’s a voice, where when you get that response, you kind of know that I wrote it. I’ll involve other people — sometimes I’ll walk through our bakery and take a photo of our chef making something, and I’ll name him. But the comments and responses have still been all me.”
Moskovitz: “We had it handled by PR before, and we just brought it all in-house, because it’s harder to have someone who’s not there all the time doing it. Now we have someone designated at each restaurant to feed me material. And also, I’m there all the time — I do make laps every night.
“We also have @dellanimom, one of our owners’ Mom. She’s very involved with the restaurants, but one of the great things about her is that she’s also really involved with the Twittersphere and other restaurants… She’s constantly feeding us content. She does fresh content, and she’s really on top of things. And I’d also say that our followers that are tweeting at us are also another stream of content, with their pics, for example.”
5. How do you interact with the Twitter community?
Huston: “Generally, I post pictures of what I’m working on or where I am, new listings, and some personal tweets, just because it’s a handmade shop — people don’t want to feel like they’re buying from a company, they want to know that there’s a person behind it…They become personally invested in the business and want me to succeed. It’s just finding the balance of not getting too personal. I try to stay away from any tweets that are too polarizing — I don’t want to talk about religion or politics.”
Moskovitz: “We tend to go off of what our followers are talking about. We obviously want conversation around us, but we don’t want to be promotional. It’s awesome if we can get conversations going around [our recent endeavors] without being promotional. Otherwise, it’s trying to engage with everyone. The more you can get conversations going, then everyone else maintains those conversations around your business, and it’s positive, and you don’t have to worry as much about that transparency that everyone’s so scared of.”
6. Do you monitor relevant key words on Twitter?
Huston: “Usually the #naturalhair hashtag is a big one [that I follow]. On Sundays at 10 p.m. ET, there’s a big #naturalhair chat, that I’m generally a part of. And throughout the week, [the community] is usually carrying on conversations using that hashtag.”
Ekster: “I don’t do that as much now, but when we were starting out, we wanted to cater to bar mitzvahs and weddings. So, we’d go to Twitter’s Advanced Search and type in ‘bar mitzvah’ and a zip code within the vicinity, and try to join those conversations. At this point, it’s far less prevalent that I’d do that — I have to be really bored to do that.”
Moskovitz: “I use TweetDeck, because I monitor three accounts at once. Sometimes, if I’m following something for the day, I will create a new column for that. I then use TweetDeck on my phone, so that I can be with it at all times. Or, if a person because really active with us, I might follow them throughout the day to see what kind of activities they’re doing.”
7. What are the pros of using Twitter?
Moskovitz: “It makes you seem more approachable. For us, it’s a whole new level of hospitality. With that, it’s important to address the people who have problems with your business, as well, because that’s the whole point — to be transparent.”
Huston: “The personal aspect of it is really important for a handmade business. And I noticed that between the four-month period before I started using Twitter and the four-month period after I started using it, my sales tripled.”
Ekster: “It allows you to expose your company in a way that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. People see a food truck, and they kind of equate it to maybe a cliché view of the food truck. And then, maybe I’ll show a picture of our bakery kitchen, and you see all the chefs and the product, and you see how clean it is — it lets you into a behind-the-scenes look at the business.
“And I’ll track the views on photos to see what people are interested in and what people aren’t. And what better way to know? If I’m choosing between two products to put out, and I suggest two, and one just has such a heavier response than the other one — you’re pretty much ensuring positive sales before you put the item out.”
8. What are the cons of using Twitter?
Huston: “It was very tedious to set up for me. It was time-consuming to amass all the followers. But once I got it set up, it’s very easy to maintain. I’m not chained to a computer like when I was first setting it up, and I can tweet from anywhere with my BlackBerry.”
Ekster: “All of the exposure is a double-edged sword. You like it when you get positive responses, but you have to be able to accept negative ones, too. It’s important how you respond to that.
It also hurts your social life. Everywhere I go, people already know that if I’m looking down at my phone, I’m not being rude — I’m just responding to people. It gets to the point that when I go out to dinner, there’s a phone-in-the-car rule, where I have to leave my phone in the car. It’s hard, because you’re sitting there in the restaurant, thinking, ‘What am I missing right now?’”
Moskovitz: “It’s 24/7. People are always on Twitter. We get nervous, because people can put up anything they want. They could set you up if they wanted to. Hopefully people are good and they wouldn’t do that. But it’s complete access.”
9. Any final advice for small businesses starting out on Twitter?
Huston: “There’s a lot of temptation to follow everyone, but I would recommend following people who are going to be interested in your products. If you sell children’s clothes, for example, add people who are following parenting magazines or are in parenting groups.”
Ekster: “Figure out how you’re going to use Twitter effectively, rather than just sending out anything. Don’t over advertise — not every conversation should be business-oriented. When we started, I looked at people that were using it well, and I read up on people like Gary Vaynerchuk, for example. And then I would watch an interview with him, where he would speak about how to use it effectively and some of his tricks and tips. So, find someone who you think is doing it effectively, watch to see how they’re doing it, and pick up on those practices.”
Moskovitz: “Take your time. There are different levels of interaction. You don’t have to jump from step one, expecting that everyone’s going to be tweeting at you and following you. It’s such a dynamic world that it’s going to be changing every day. Even the platform just changed in the past couple of weeks. Figure out what you want to do with it, find the right people, find your space and it will all fall into place.”