Do brands belong on Twitter? Yes and no

Guest poster Mark Drapeau has a piece up on Mashable that looks at what — for the social-media sphere at least — has become an age-old question: should companies and brands be on Twitter? He comes to the conclusion they should not, for a whole bunch of what are very good reasons, including that company names “reduce authenticity and transparency,” and that “brand names and logos, as opposed to full names and user images, are not in the spirit of the Twitterverse.” As he puts it:

“Does anyone really want to talk to @DunkinDonuts? Or would they rather talk to Bill Rosenberg, the founder of Dunkin Donuts of Canton, MA, or perhaps the local franchise owner on Capitol Hill, or a disgruntled but funny summer employee punching in at 4am? People connect with people, and so I think the latter.”

There’s no question that the post raises some good points. But as someone who has been spending a lot of time in my new role at the Globe and Mail thinking about social media and how (or whether) we should be using it, I’m not sure he is completely right. I agree that one of the appealing things about Twitter is the personal aspect, and the ability to connect with someone, even on a somewhat trivial level. But I don’t think that means companies — or brands — can’t use it, just that they have to approach it in the right way.

Obviously, throwing an account like @DunkinDonuts up there and hoping to attract thousands of followers is pretty dumb, just as creating Facebook accounts for the Burger King mascot was kind of dumb (even if it was trumpeted as a huge success). As a number of people have pointed out, no one really wants to interact with Dunkin Donuts on a personal level, apart from the actual process of buying a donut. But what about an account like @Comcastcares? Hundreds of people have interacted with the person (or people) behind that account and been pretty amazed by the response. That’s a good thing, no?

Or look at @ColonelTribune, an account maintained by Daniel Honigman, who works for Tribune Interactive and also writes for the Old Media New Tricks blog (which had some smart thoughts from Robert Quigley of @statesman about Twitter use). The avatar is a cartoon mascot, but there is clearly a human voice behind the posts, and that makes all the difference. Honigman comments on things, introduces links, drops hints about things that are going on at the Tribune, which has a had a pretty busy couple of weeks lately, what with going bankrupt and then being caught up in the Blagojevich debacle. And the Colonel Tribune account clearly helps the paper, I think, if past events are anything to go by.

With one of our most recent Twitter accounts, we’ve tried to walk a similar kind of middle path: Simon Beck, who is in charge of the new Globe Campus site, is now Twittering, and the photo that appears on the account is his — and the voice will most definitely be his — but the actual account name is @GlobeCampus, and it’s clear that he is posting on behalf of the site. I think that’s a pretty good compromise between the personal and the corporate. I’d be interested to hear what others think.

For other perspectives, see this Jeremiah Owyang post and a post from the Future Lab marketing blog about what to do and what not to do. And the Sunday New York Times has a great column about how brands are trying (and in some cases failing) to make use of social networks like Facebook. My friend Alistair Croll also has some interesting thoughts about how Twitter isn’t a site, it’s a protocol.

33 thoughts on “Do brands belong on Twitter? Yes and no

  1. It depends on the brand and how it interacts. Let's say you put Ronald McDonald on twitter or better yet in Penguin Club.

    I think there are some brands that people are flat out mad about, for me Dunkin Donuts is one of them. In part because I grew up with Dunkin, on the east coast and now live in MN where they don't have Dunkins; they will be here soon and I will gain 100 lbs and be up all night, but I love there coffee.

    If the brand interacted in a way that played to the personality it's customers gave it then I say fine. I still would follow Dunkin's CEO to give him or her ideas and have them tell me stuff like new products, donut ideas, and other stuff.

    But I do believe some brands can have a perosnality online.

  2. Good post, Mathew.

    I read Mark wrong initially, and I've noticed that – whether intended or now – the post itself is written in a provocative way that leads many to read it as “Brands should be banned on Twitter, period.”

    In fact there's a sort of middle ground that you're both touching on and one that I agree with. Brands SHOULD be on Twitter, as we all (let's just be honest here) benefit when companies make products that we love better. Using Twitter as a tool to improve and get feedback is a good thing.

    That said, I believe the brands should have actual people, using some form of their actual name, on the service. We need to know who we are talking to and debating with. If we don't we're liable to just ignore them and move on…and possibly now with a negative image of the brand itself.

    I'm currently working with someone at a very high profile local company on this exact issue (working as in she's my friend and I think they're doing it wrong). They make a premium brand product, and they're attempting to tweet under some boring, plain, no-identity account. And honestly…it's awful. Nobody is engaged.

    • That's it exactly, Dave. The lack of any kind of personality — even a little — makes it incredibly boring. Who wants to follow that?

    • Good idea however if the big box companies are doing this with marketing in mind then they should recruit affiliates who will let people know about these new products coming online so it can be kept to a personal touch and this will help the little guy make a living. Does this sound like a good idea.

  3. There's a element of linkbaiting in the original post on Mashable, but it raises valid points as you say. Perhaps because I personally use a branded account on Twitter, I don't see the problem. (I have a personal one as well, but I don't use it because Twitter isn't really personal IMHO)

    There are two types of brands on Twitter: those that follow, and those that don't. The ones that follow are interested in engaging, in being able to receive DMs from their stakeholders. Those that don't follow, are there to use Twitter as a way to push out their information, but they're not interested in it as a channel for engagement.

    The point is, we all have a choice. No one is making us follow the info and PR and marketing pushers. If you want their info on Twitter (I do in the case of news organizations) then you'll follow them. If not you can just ignore them.

    The Mashable post is a little irresponsible in that sense. Let's ban brands! Gimme a break. Let's just ignore them.

    • I agree, Dominic. The “ban brands on Twitter” part did seem a bit over the top. Ignoring them is enough — and likely has the same effect anyway.

  4. Here is the point, People are smart. They can decide for themselves what type of Twitter experience that they want. If they want to follow Dunkin Donuts (I do) then that is their privilege. I do that because I hope that Dunkin will figure out how to use TW to provide value. Realistically it is going to take time.

    The theme of saying that brands will be more successful if there is a human behind the brand is spot on. A brand that merely sends promotional messaging is going to fail because they are not providing an experience that could not otherwise be achieved in a blast email. Some businesses, that have strong affinity are going to figure out how to create good TW experiences and overall will add value to the networks that they participate in.

    It is early in Twitterverse. More of a frontier town today. But over time this will all shake out and for sure brands will be a part of it. To the extent that that doesn't work for someone, they need not follow the brand – completely consensual.

    BTW, keep in mind that ultimately it may be brands that subsidize whatever business model emerges much as advertising has. Twitter is not going to be a free ride forever.

    • I completely agree with you Kim. Brands should not be banned just because they are brands. We should be able to choose whether we want to be bombarded with brand marketing or not. If you don't want to interact with brands on Twitter, don't follow them.
      Cone marketing strategy firm says that a good group of Americans agree with us.

  5. That sounds exactly right. The account name is descriptive of why I'd want to know or interact with the real person behind it and the photo (and hopefully bio) show me that I can interact with a real person, not a faceless corporate entity. It seems like plenty of blogs already work this way, having a twitter account in the blog name but clearly being the person of the blog's founder.

    • That's a good point, Dale. And some blogs have two or more accounts — the one with the “brand,” which pushes out new posts, and the ones that are more personal. I think that's not a bad approach either.

      • If we think there is a single Twitter audience to address therefore a single best way to do it, we've already made a big mistake.

        There is no such thing as “how you're supposed to use Twitter.” They intentionally leave it very open ended (part of Twitter's “Transcendent Clarity” I've blogged about before). Even look at the Twitter streams of Twitter founders and employees to see very different styles and use cases.

        So of course some folks would follow a Twitter stream that is really just an RSS feed, while others never would, and some would like both.

        In much the same way, while you and I might prefer only to interact with a human face, for some brands sometimes, some people might really think it was neat and get a kick out of following, @reply'ing or getting a message from the faceless brand, especially if it is not overdone.

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  7. Twitter is just one tool of many and rather in my opinion, besides the point.

    I think everyone is confusing the issue here – there is a larger strategic question for brands/companies as to how they create their social media “identities” and then utilize social spaces. There are a number of valid and different models that would work depending upon the brand, how they intend to utilize social media and the tolerance level of the community they are attempting to engage with.

    As for the guidelines that were put up for using Twitter – i don't mean to be condescending but DUH… that's the same list of things people have been talking about for years now – and making pretty diagrams doesn't make the thoughts there any more original.

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  9. I like this idea of a brand/organization Twitter account being clearly tied to a specific person doing the tweeting. People would get into it like they do with who's there favourite Bond. “Oh, I liked it best when so and so was @companyname back in the summer of '09”
    “@companyname isn't worth following since so and so passed the mantel”

  10. Mathew – One correction: I'm a SM strategist for Tribune Interactive. I work with the Chicago Tribune, LA Times, etc.

    Thanks for the (digital) ink, though. 😉

  11. Forgive my bias here – isn't Twitter another (downward) iteration of ACAD i.e. “Always connected / Always distracted”?

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  13. Mark,
    I agree with your post. Twitter, like the Millenial generation it primarily caters to, is about a dialogue in the back channel and not one-way communications.

    I've seen tech company CEOs who simply think of Twitter as a very short press release. Unless it's an engaging, varied and relevant discussion, people will tune it out pretty quickly.

  14. Good idea however if the big box companies are doing this with marketing in mind then they should recruit affiliates who will let people know about these new products coming online so it can be kept to a personal touch and this will help the little guy make a living. Does this sound like a good idea.

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