Far back in history when Twitter was new (about the same time the planets in our solar system formed), it was fun but not vital. At the time, it was the realm of college and high school student talking about what they had for lunch. Loss of service might make some investors nervous or pre-teen girls cry, but the effect on the halls of commerce was zero. Since those prehistoric times (around the beginning of the digital Bronze Age) Twitter and its cousin Facebook have become important marketing channels. They carry messages from marketers who craft them to their followers and friends and, if they’re lucky, messages of support back. It was at this point when Twitter and Facebook went from being consumer curiosities to real business tools, despite all the posts about cats.
The evolution of these social network services has brought us to another new level in their commercial usefulness and significance. Through a combination of new software tools and consumers just doing it anyway, the two most common social networking sites have become bona fide communications channels for sales, service, and support. Just as e-mail and the phone are, Twitter and Facebook have become channels for letting support know of a problem and sales know when someone is interested in buying something.
The big difference between social networking services and traditional communications channels is that companies can control the latter to a great extent. If a company finds that its hosted e-mail system is not up to snuff, it can be brought in-house. If the phone system has problems, they can be addressed. It’s only money. If Twitter is a primary channel then there is little anyone can do but wait for it to be fixed and hope they do a good job. This problem became painfully obvious today (7-26-12) when Twitter went offline for several hours (and counting). The only option is to wait it out and understand that there is nothing IT or a company can do to keep it from happening again.
The effects are also much larger with social networking sites simply because there are so few outlets. When a company e-mail system goes offline, it only affects one company. When Facebook or Twitter goes offline, thousands of companies are affected and millions of users. When these services are used as marketing outlets, the result is at worst inconvenience. When used as a customer service or sales conduit, the situation can lead to angry customers and lost sales.
Finally, social networking services are not really in the business of creating an open communication channel for companies. Their business is keeping as many users engaged. If that means making decisions that benefit the end-user but not the company trying to exploit them, that’s what will happen. In order to create a stable service without incurring lots of costs, Twitter has, in the past, ratcheted back access from other applications through their APIs. Why would anyone think they would make a different decision going forward because someone wants to use Twitter as a communication channel?
It is dangerous, and nearly unprecedented in commercial history, for sales and service to rely on a medium that can’t be controlled and is not regulated. These functions are inherently time critical. Marketing can be more flexible. The message may be delayed but will get there and that’s good enough. Companies need to remember that when they start to use these channels the way they use e-mail or the phone for sales and service.
And, when Twitter is offline, how does one Tweet customers to let them know that that channel is offline? Think about that…