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To tweet or not to tweet: Twitter exec shares tips for customer engagement

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While many small and mid-sized retail companies are trying to figure out how to foster brand engagement in a meaningful way via social media, retailers of all sizes know that social platforms like Twitter are playing an increasingly larger role in their interactions with shoppers. Still debating whether to tweet or not to tweet as a brand? Ahead of his appearance at Retail's BIG Show this January, we asked Richard Alfonsi, Global Vice President of Small Business Sales at Twitter, Inc. to share his insights on how Main Street retailers should be leveraging the platform, his favorite Twitter success stories, and what it means to him to be a part of Twitter's growing business. 

Richard Alfonsi, Global Vice President of Small Business Sales, Twitter Inc.

Tell us a little bit about why you took on this role at Twitter.

I'm absolutely thrilled to be here at Twitter, leading our ads business serving mid-market and small business clients globally. It's a massive opportunity to create real value for our clients and to build Twitter as an enduring company. When I was making my decision to join several months ago (and leave a senior role at Google), it really boiled down to two factors: people and impact. On the "people" side, the team that we're continuing to build at Twitter includes some of the most talented folks I've worked with in my career — they also have a great deal of personality and passion that they bring to work and to our clients. On the "impact" dimension, I'm extremely excited about the difference that Twitter can make for our business clients and for the world at large. I really do believe that we're redefining how businesses of all sizes can think about marketing, and how conversations on Twitter can be become an interactive canvas to help drive their growth. On the broader scale of impact on the world, I'm proud to be part of a company whose consumer service is redefining communications and info distribution. Whether it's giving people a political voice like in the Arab Spring or the recent U.S. elections, giving people a communications lifeline in the face of natural disasters like the Japan Earthquake or Hurricane Sandy, or simply bringing them closer to events and news makers, Twitter does seem to be making a meaningful and positive impact on the world around us. And I have to say it's pretty cool to be helping to make that happen.

What's your favorite Twitter engagement success story?

We talk a lot about Twitter "bringing you closer" to many things you care about — events, celebrities, political leaders, friends, businesses, etc. So there really are countless great stories around Twitter engagement happening every day, and it's hard to pick just one. I could point to the role that Twitter played in the recent presidential election, and how Obama's victory declaration of "Four more years." became the most retweeted in history. Or I could point to how NBA star Kevin Durant used Twitter to join a pick-up flag football game with a fan he never met when he was bored during the NBA lockout. One of my favorites, though, is how Morton's Steakhouse used Twitter to surprise and delight one of their customers. While a guy named Peter Shankman was boarding a flight to Newark he jokingly tweeted "Hey @Mortons can you meet me at Newark airport with a porterhouse when I land in 2 hrs? K, thx ;)" Morton's saw the tweet and actually met him at EWR airport with a porterhouse dinner and all the trimmings. Not only was it a great example customer service -- but proof that authentic and creative engagement can boost positive brand awareness.

Many Main Street retailers are looking to drive foot traffic to their store locations. How can social media help accomplish this?

There are a handful of techniques businesses can use to understand how a presence on Twitter can be a direct correlation to more customers coming through their doors on a regular basis. One of the most effective ways for a business to know Twitter is driving in store traffic is to use specific hashtags around promotions or deals they are running. For example, let's say you are a local retailer and as part of your holiday promotions, you are giving a 20% discount on all out-of-season items. If the retailer then sends a number of tweets telling customers they will get the discount if they mention the hashtag #2012SuperSale in the store, instantly the business knows those customers not only saw the deal on Twitter, but it motivated them to come into the store and buy their products.

When establishing a brand presence on social media, what is your biggest piece of advice for small business owners who may have limited resources?

Like with any successful Twitter approach, it's best to speak in your own voice, know who your audience is, and think about building your presence in a smart and authentic way. There are a range of goals that small businesses may have for using the Twitter platform — it could be getting foot traffic into your store or it could be driving awareness for an event that you're having. Regardless of the goal, authenticity is key. If you think about the image you want to project, the voice you want to use, and are doing that in a natural way that's engaging with your customer base, that is what resonates and generates success for a business.

What should businesses know or do before advertising on Twitter?

Twitter's ads — we call them "Promoted Products" — essentially amplify a business's presence on the platform. They can help to engage with a broader set of users, drive more loyal followers, and hit a range of business goals. So building a solid organic (free) presence on Twitter is an important foundational first step. Every business has a personality, and finding an authentic and engaging way to share that personality with your customer base is the key for success both with organic Twitter usage and with our Promoted Products.

Of all the things happening in the social media landscape, what would you say is the best metric for small businesses to measure to know if they're successfully leveraging social networking sites effectively?

At the end of the day, increasing sales is the best way to measure the success of any marketing effort. While Twitter and other players are developing increasingly sophisticated analytics to demonstrate this revenue impact, many small businesses can see this direct connection to driving more sales in pretty straightforward ways. For example, one clothing retailer knows it's working because customers ask for a specific pair of shoes that were only promoted on Twitter. A coffee shop client often hears a new customer say, "I was the one who tweeted you last night." It is certainly also the case that we recommend businesses closely track metrics around their presence on Twitter, such as their number of followers and the "engagement rate" on their tweets —metrics we make easily accessible in our dashboards. For more about how small businesses can leverage social media, check out the Main Street Retailing Forum at Retail's BIG Show, Jan. 13 to 16 in New York City.