Most people just don’t get it. I constantly hear, “What’s the big deal over this Twitter thing? It’s just another way to send a text message.” But years from now, when we look back on the Twitter-wave that swept across the world, it will be recognized for what it is – the most important marketing revolution in our lifetime.
Let’s put this in context. In early times, we got our information from town criers, travelers, and laboriously hand-copied texts. After the invention of the printing press in 1440, printed news began appearing in flyers tacked to doors or bulletin boards, which eventually evolved into broadsheet newspapers. Seizing the opportunity to increase sales and reach more customers, businesses began advertising in newspapers. Still, advertisers were reaching only a small percentage of the populace. Not only were they limited by the local nature of printed materials, they had absolutely no control of whether or not the reader would actually read their ads. That changed radically when radio appeared in the 1920s. Suddenly, advertisers not only had a means to reach consumers all over the country, but they also had a captive audience forced to listen to their commercials.
Television burst onto the scene just a few years later in 1928 and was a viable technology by 1941, when the first television station was commercially licensed in New York. Before long, TV was the preferred advertising medium for large corporations. Despite the fact that TV reached the masses more effectively ever before, the medium had distinct disadvantages. In addition to high advertising prices, it was impossible to purchase ads directed at a specific “target market.” Because of its mass appeal, TV has always been a “broad” buy, with marketers acknowledging that the bulk of their advertising dollars are wasted on a large percentage of viewers who are not potential customers for their product. But it was still the best advertising alternative.
Then along came the electronic information age and everything changed. A new generation, long put off by manipulated news, uninspired programming, and an increasing percentage advertising to programming time, turned to the Internet for their daily news and entertainment. Blogs, IM’s, and text messaging rapidly followed and were overwhelmingly embraced. On first glance, Twitter would seem to be just another in a long line of technology tools. But look again. Something very important has been happening in the background that, in retrospect, will be seen as a turning point. Or perhaps I should say “The Tipping Point,” as it was dubbed by Malcolm Gladwell in his book of the same name, published in 2002. Gladwell described the tipping point as “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads, like wildfire.”
Gladwell recognized that a major shift was occurring. Advertisers – especially local businesses – were suddenly struggling with how to reach potential customers. Many no longer read traditional magazines or newspapers. Radio lost market share to subscription services like Sirius and to Internet streaming stations. And while TV viewership remained fairly strong, the audience was spread across a multitude of cable and Direct TV stations. With the advent of the Do Not Call laws, telemarketing disappeared, and the Do Not Email law has severely impacted electronic marketing. Internet advertising, although sure to be a future powerhouse, has not yet been figured out by marketers. So what is working? How do products and services successfully market themselves? Gladwell knew ten years ago. By word of mouth.
Having lost trust in traditional media sources, people are turning to one another for recommendations and referrals. Strangely, we have come full circle; we are back to the days of town criers. The difference today is the speed at which the message is disseminated, and this is where Twitter has become so important. Texting is fast, but it only reaches one person at a time. With Twitter, you can send out a single 140-character Tweet, and everyone who is following you receives it. They, in turn, can Re-Tweet (RT) your message to their followers, and so on. Since I write about travel, I have been following the effects of Twitter on this industry. If you are still a doubter, check out the following examples of the power of this technology with regard to travel:
Shortly after US Airways flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River, Janis Krum grabbed his iPhone and typed: “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people.” He uploaded his message, along with a photo of the rapidly sinking aircraft to Twitter, informing all his followers about the accident well before any of the traditional media knew about it, scooping the story of the year.
During the terrorist attacks on the stately Taj Hotel in Mumbai, India, much of the early reporting relied on Tweets being send by people trapped inside the building.
A visitor to the San Francisco Zoo Tweeted his complaint about a closed exhibit. Zoo officials subsequently admitted that, “This was a key learning experience for us, and we started to Twitter when animals were off exhibit or if our carousel was closed for the day.”
On March, 1, 2009, calling himself the “twitchhiker,” Paul Smith set out to travel as far around the world as possible in 30 days, relying only on the goodwill of people using Twitter. He traveled using only suggestions from the Twitter community for transport and accommodation, making the 30-day trip to raise money for charity. How far did he get on the generosity of Twitterers? All the way to the southern tip of New Zealand. Along the way, many hoteliers, including my friend Guido who owns blogs as the Happy Hotelier and owns the Haagsche Suites in The Hague, Netherlands, offered Paul free accommodation.
Although Guido was disappointed that the twitchhiker was not able to accept his offer, it didn’t stop him from using Twitter recently to ask his followers for advice about places to stay in Visp or Brig, Switzerland. That simple conversation gave Katy Lynch at WhereI’veBeen.com a clever idea. She suggested that the Twitter community Tweet about travel every Tuesday and add a hashtag (otherwise known as the pound symbol to us Americans), followed by the words traveltuesday to the end of the tweet (#traveltuesday). By doing so, users could easily search for Twitterers who were participating.Â She called it (what else!) Travel Tuesday. The idea was so instantly popular that just a few days later, she launched TravelTuesday.org, a site that compiles all Tweets containing the #traveltuesday or #travel hashtags in one place. (You may notice that I’ve added the two hashtags to the title of this post so that it will – hopefully – be immediately found when it is imported into Twitter tomorrow morning.)
Word of mouth – the most powerful method of marketing available today – is here to stay. And Twitter is the largest, fastest word-of-mouth network in the history of the world. Indeed, according to Hitwise, already 1.3% of all Twitter traffic goes to travel sites, so the technology could well become a defining force in the travel industry. Companies, unable to ignore the Twitter steamroller, are finally getting on board with their own accounts. Although many have done so for defensive reasons – to monitor complaints and respond – the smart companies are using it pro-actively. I don’t think it is too far-fetched to suggest that Twitter may be able to do what no amount of written complaints or negative media coverage have previously been able to accomplish. Businesses will be forced to properly train their employees, make sure they produce a quality product, and treat customers with respect, or risk the wrath of the Twitterati.
Never one to be left behind, I am soon to test the power of Twitter myself. I am about to set out on another long-term journey – this time in the U.S. – during which I will be tweeting from wherever I happen to be on a daily basis. That’s just a bit of a carrot to keep you all on edge. You’ll have to wait until I put all the pieces together to learn more, so stay tuned. In the meantime – go tweet somebody, will ‘ya!