The adventures of an analog engineer and digital storyteller who studies emerging networks and their impact on the great game of business.
Sep 26, 2011

Most companies don’t understand Twitter. Instead of seeing it as a real-time communications channel, many dismiss it as a 140 character-limited oddity.

The secret to understanding Twitter resides within its constraints. By understanding how to use brevity and timeliness as an advantage, companies can use Twitter as a lead generation machine. Take the following example:

At 11:44 a.m. on September 12th, Twitter user, @suburbanmama (Marcie Taylor), published the following post:

“Also right now I am evaluating #socialmedia analytics tools. Any suggestions? #smmoc @hubspot @radian6 @lithium”

From a business perspective, this tweet represents a prospect reaching out to her public network for opinions. For those not used to Twitter shorthand, let’s parse the tweet:

“Also right now I am evaluating #socialmedia analytics tools.”

Marcie has told her 3200 followers that she is looking to evaluate tools that track conversations in social mediums.

Her use of two hashtags (#socialmedia & #smmoc) aid those who are tracking specific Twitter conversations. For example, by tagging her post with “#smmoc,” she’s seeking the attention of a local social media support group called Social Media Masterminds of Orange County.

Finally, she’s called-out three of the top social media analytics companies through their Twitter handles: Hubspot, Radian6, and Lithium.

Marcie posted her question at 11:44 a.m.

Radian6 responded within seven minutes.

@suburbanmama Happy to help where we can. =)

But Radian6 wasn’t the first analytics company to respond. A competitor called ViralHeat had already responded five minutes earlier:

@suburbanmama Have you considered @viralheat as an analytics tool as well? Take a look & let me know if you have any Qs! #socialmedia #smmoc

(Note the use of her hashtags #socialmedia and #smmoc)

Twitter is a simple platform that allows direct correspondence between companies and their prospects. Marcie reached out to her followers via Twitter. Radian6 responded directly to her. Seeing an opportunity to add its name onto an exclusive list, Viral Heat also responded. Both use Twitter as a strategic sales tool.

Is your company monitoring and responding to prospects who are asking about your products and services? If not, consider the fact that your competition may be responding for you.

Last Thursday, millions of Southern Californians experienced a major power blackout. The company in the middle of this event, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDGE), had found itself facing the most widespread power outage in its history. Not only had all of its 1.4 million customers lost their power, but they were also demanding to know when it would be returned to them.

In the past, SDGE’s crisis-communications options would have been limited to press releases and press conferences. And although those activities still occurred, SDGE had another option available to it–one that would allow it to speak directly to its customers in real-time. Specifically, the company used its Twitter account to publish 107 messages between 3:52 p.m on Thursday and 9:17 a.m. on Friday.

This mini-case study looks at how SDGE used Twitter to communicate through the crisis, and then it offers some lessons that other companies can learn from the event.

Setting the Foundation

Although San Diego Gas & Electric created its Twitter account (@sdge) on April 24, 2009, it didn’t start posting to it until the following September. During its first twenty-four months of tweeting, the company grew its audience to over 16,000 followers by sharing helpful tips pertaining to energy safety, conservation, and ways for customers to cut their energy bills. Examples of such tips include: changing the filter on your air conditioner, using tankless water heaters, and closing window drapes to keep the sun from heating up your house.

During these first 24 months, the company had established a fairly consistent publishing schedule, averaging 34 tweets per month (median = 31), but that would all change the day the power stopped flowing to all of its 1.4 million customers.

Lights out

SDGE’s first tweet about the event occurred at 3:52 p.m on Thursday:

  • We understand power is out, we are working on the cause and solution. We do not have a restoration time yet.

During the next sixteen hours, the company published 106 more tweets containing information that fell into four different categories: updates, insights, tips, and help.

Fifty percent of the tweets included updates–real-time news such as the number of households affected (1.4 million), neighborhoods affected, and areas which were getting power back.

Insights offered customers a glimpse into the company’s thought process. For example:

    • Think of the system as linked by springs, when one part goes out the rest are affected.
    • SDGE prez said he has been with utility since 1971 and never seen anything like this. There was no warning. Started at 3:30.

31% of the tweets contained tips, which were split into five different sub-categories: safety, help, energy saving, coping, and preparing.

Of these 33 tips SDGE published during the crisis, 36% were devoted to safety. Such tweets included:

    • Safety is key at this time. Prepare to stay home tonight without power.
    • The outage has affected street lights. Please drive safely and treat street signals as four way stops.
    • If you have a personal family emergency plan, please activate it now.
    • If you’re using a portable generator, for safety never plug the generator into any electric outlets. #sdoutage
    • Candles can be fire hazards. Never place them near curtains or other flammable material, or leave them unattended. #sdoutage


27% contained pleas for customers to help SDGE bring-up the grid.

    • Remember to turn off air conditioners to prevent them from unexpectedly coming on when the power is restored. #sdoutage
    • During this power outage turn major appliances off and unplug all small appliances to avoid a surge when power is restored. #sdoutage

12% contained coping strategies:

  • Keep your refrigerator and your freezer doors closed to help prevent food spoilage. #sdoutage

and 9% were related to preparation for when the power would be turned on:

    • To prepare for when power is restored unplug sensitive equipment like microwaves, computers and televisions. #sdoutage
    • To prepare for power restoration: Leave one light on so you’ll know when the power is restored. #sdoutage

When the lights came on

During the course of the crisis, the informational needs of SDGE’s customers changed, so the company adjusted its content accordingly. For example, as power was being restored to their customers…

…it began shifting its messages from updates to tips. The following chart illustrates both the volume and type of tweets the company produced during the crisis.

Lessons from SDGE

Companies can learn a few lessons from how SDGE used Twitter:

1) Dig a well before you are thirsty

SDGE had invested twenty-four months and 825 tweets into building its Twitter channel. During that time, not only had it gathered 16,000 followers, but it had simultaneously established the channel as a credible place for corporate information. Had SDGE waited until the event before using its Twitter channel, it’s likely that the company wouldn’t have had the experience to know how to use it effectively.

2) The media follows Twitter
The media is interested in more than just press releases and press conferences. They also monitor Twitter, as evidenced by the Los Angeles Times which lead its first online article of the event with a screenshot of an SDGE tweet.

3) Create a hashtag
Within one hour of its first tweet about the event, SDGE started using the hashtag “#sdoutage.” Hashtags are useful for people to monitor all conversations about the incident, above and beyond what the company is saying about it.

4) Ask for help
Turning on a power grid is much more complicated than turning on a light-switch, and therefore, SDGE needed the cooperation of its customers to help bring the system back online. It did so by asking them for help, such as turning off appliances and spreading the message to other customers.

5) Adjust the message
During the course of the event, the informational needs of the audience changed. At the beginning of the crisis, people needed to know two things: what was happening and what the company was doing to fix the problem. Once those messages were delivered, the company switched to help customers cope until power was restored. As neighborhoods were reconnected to the grid, the company prepared them with steps to take before the lights came on. Finally, after power was fully restored, the company switched to advisories that asked customers to conserve power until network stability was achieved.


In all, SDGE showed how companies can use a channel limited to 140 character messages to communicate in real-time during a crisis.

Is your company prepared to do the same?

Jun 6, 2011

Last Tuesday’s announcement of the Twitter follow button demonstrates yet one more way for the social graph to embed itself within traditional corporate web silos. Joining the powerful, one-click buttons of the Facebook Platform, website visitors are not only just one-click way from becoming a fan of your company’s Facebook page, they’re also just another click away from following your company on Twitter. Oh, and these two actions can happen without the visitor ever leaving your site.

All around the globe, traditional markers are licking their chops, trying to figure out a way to inflate the number of “likes” and “follows” through the use of these buttons. Unfortunately, most are orchestrating their plans without understanding their real value, which increases the possibility of costly mistakes.

The value of one of these buttons can be determined by answering simple questions such as these:

  • Why should people click our button?
  • Is there an equitable exchange for doing so?
  • Will their lives be more enriched by clicking?
  • Will they be able to solve their problems, save money, become more profitable, increase productivity, be entertained, or just be “marketed to?”

But alas, these aren’t the questions that traditional marketers answer. They’re only interested in growing the numbers will try anything to do so.

For example, three days after a killer tornado ripped through Joplin, Missouri, a local company launched a fundraising campaign, promising to donate $3 to the Red Cross for every person who “liked” their Facebook page. Assuming that their intentions were pure, I’m reminded of that old saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

Pressing the Facebook “like” button is much more complex than simply specifying a preference:

  1. It allows a company to market to us
  2. It puts our personal endorsements on a brand
  3. Those endorsements are then shared publicly with the rest of our Facebook networks.

Therefore, by pressing their “like” button to donate, the company has asked us to place a value on both our reputations and preferred access to our eyeballs. At the moment of truth, when we are deciding whether to push that button, will such a value increase or decrease the probability of pushing the button?

And the shenanigans of the traditional don’t stop there.  Recently, I clicked on a hyperlink in my Twitter feed that brought me to an article that sounded interesting. Upon arriving at the website, I was faced with one of those annoying pop-up “roadblocks” that obscured my view of the article. Usually, I just click on the little “X” and the roadblock closes, but not in this case. Nope. In order to close this box, I had to select from one of two choices:

  1. “Like” the organization’s Facebook page
  2. Reply “No thanks, I hate web video!” (See the image to the right)

I’m sure that some traditional marketing hack enjoyed this clever spin on the old dilemma-question: “So Senator, do you still beat your wife?”…but really? Is such a clever play on words supposed to endear me to your brand?

In the end, I chose neither–foregoing the article and leaving the site with a bad brand taste in my mouth.

As the social graph encroaches onto the most sacred of corporate online properties, it’s important for marketers to understand the ramifications of their actions. Pressing “Like” or “Follow” buttons has less to do with expressing a preference than it does in establishing the basis of a trusted relationship between client and vendor. Relationships are much more complicated than preference statements; they come with responsibilities. Therefore, if you’re fishing for “likes” or “followers,” make sure to have some respect for those who you want to push the button.