LONDON - Thanks to Twitter's tie-ups with Microsoft and Google, the micro-blogging site can no longer be ignored by brands seeking to maintain their reputation online. Dan Leahul investigates what the marriage of search and social media means for marketers.
This is an appeal to the stubborn 10 per cent of brands that have dismissed Twitter as a fad. To the other 90 per cent or so - those employing or currently developing a Twitter strategy - well done!
Advertisers in the minority need to read the following carefully: Twitter is coming to Google. Tweets, or more accurately, retweets, will soon be incorporated into Google's main search results.
Microsoft and Google have selected Twitter to provide their search pages with live information, changing the results that have been pretty much the same for years. This means that if you haven't already got a Twitter strategy in place, you're going to need to get one, and fast. The only thing at stake is, well, the reputation of your brand.
As for the rest of you, don't kick back and relax just yet, for the arrival of real-time results on Bing and Google, along with Yahoo!'s deal with real-time engine OneRiot, is set to change the face of search marketing.
Until now Twitter has been viewed by many as a small bunch of people making a lot of noise. But add up the global audience of Google and Microsoft online and you get a figure way north of one billion unique users a month. The result: lots of noise in front of lots of people. This represents the single biggest change in search engines since their introduction, claims Tim Aldiss, director of strategy and communications at Fresh Egg.
But what will the new-look real-time search pages actually deliver? While Google says its product won't be ready for 'a number of weeks', a rudimentary version of Bing's real-time search is already online and could provide a few hints. If you input certain keywords, like 'Stephen Fry tweets' for example, Bing delivers his latest tweets as the top result and provides a link to Twitter.
That's fine for celebrities, but when it comes to integration into all searches, the picture is not so clear. The estimated number of tweets posted every day is around the 10 million mark, meaning that somehow, Google and Bing will have to sift through the dross to get to the good stuff.
Even some of the most informed people in search have no idea how the new landscape will look. What they do acknowledge, however, is that word-of-mouth, peer reviews and user-generated content will soon be given as much credibility as traditional search results.
The most likely outcome is that real-time results will be integrated into natural search results and, to start with at least, will be demarked from the rest of the results. Where they will rank is another issue. A tweet containing a link that has been re-tweeted hundreds of times in minutes, and by influential users, will likely be the metric to rank and organise breaking stories. So, Twitter's power-brokers may become the gatekeepers of real-time search. One only has to look at Digg, where so-called power-users propel their favourite content to the front page.
But can brands become power-users? This is the logical next question for marketers. The answer is that they can become influential, should they put a few simple practices in place.
"A majority of brands will be spending significant time monitoring reputation," predicts Neil Walker, chief technical officer at Just Search.Many brands are already using Twitter as a customer service and research tool - monitoring for negative brand comments and trying to resolve customer issues. What happens when negative tweets begin appearing in Google search results, exposed to massive audiences? "You make it right," says Walker. "And let everyone see that as well."
That sounds simple, but brands can still be taken by surprise in the realm of the real-time web, as Habitat learned when it used hashtags relating to the Iranian election to promote its furniture. In light of this, it's important for brands to implement an alert system, understanding what is worth letting go and what is worth getting the chief executive out of bed for at 4am.
Also, have prepared statements and plans of distribution ready ahead of time. "Don't wait too long to respond," says Melanie Seasons, social media strategist at Onlinefire. "The internet isn't going to slow down, so brands have to be prepared to act fast when it comes to consumer response."
Every brand should have at least one trusted employee checking the channels. More for big brands, obviously. And this is for keeps: real-time search is not going to go away any time soon.
Let's remember, too, that real-time search is more than just another platform where brands will have to pour cold water on controversies - there is opportunity to target consumers intelligently. A recent study found that one in five tweets mentions a brand name in some capacity, most of them positively. But how do brands prepare for the oncoming fire hose of data once Google's Twitter search goes live?
In particular, the travel and retail sectors are expected to be the biggest beneficiaries of the real-time revolution, especially during the lead-up to Christmas. Last-minute travel deals will gain huge authority among users looking for cheap flights, while retail brands can expect to market time-sensitive discounts.
Just Search's Walker predicts a future of 'hyper-reviews', where a user can type in a name of a product, say a flat-screen TV, and instantly see a number of user-generated, 140-character endorsements, although it can just as easily go the other way. Brands might be able to convert these into sales, he says, but predicts user reviews will ultimately trump commercial promotions.
Rob Moss, head of marketing at Lastminute.com, says the company is looking forward to Google's real-time search product, even though the company does not use its Twitter channel for commercial transactions. It uses Twitter to interact with its followers in a more neutral way in order to get them on side.
Onlinefire's Seasons expects many brands to be unprepared: "Businesses may wait to see how social search will affect them before they do anything," she says, warning that this could leave them exposed to competition from more opportunistic rivals.
The rogue element
There will undoubtedly be rogue brands that will look to channel the real-time web to their advantage. Twitter has already seen its fair share of controversial marketing campaigns. Take Moonfruit, whose giveaway competition led to it becoming the most-mentioned brand until, it claims, Twitter censored it from its trending list.
Less ethical brands are likely to take advantage of the results for pseudo-promotions or mudslinging, while spam is sure to play a major part in the real-time web. Others will attempt to tap into the popularity of the brands doing it well.
"Brands will never be able to control the bad things people say about them," says Seasons. "Years ago they could just put their fingers in their ears and pretend it wasn't happening."
Claims that Twitter represents only a niche audience may well still have a ring of truth. But the deals with Bing and Google are set to go live, giving an audience of hundreds of millions the chance to see tweets about your brand.
So even if you do have someone running your Twitter account, it will soon not be enough. Before long every marketer will be expected to know about real-time search. Now is the time to learn.
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