April 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

Tweet, Tweet

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Because Twitter is so new, many retailers are still learning their way around. As they do with other online marketing campaigns, merchants can create a custom URL so they can track clicks from links embedded in Twitter messages.

However, the 140-character limit on Twitter makes it important to embed short web addresses so as not to use up valuable space-URL-shortening tools such as Tiny URL, Bit.ly and Ow.ly meet the need, says Susan A. McKenna, CEO of McKenna’s Marketing, a firm specializing in online social media, and former vice president of e-commerce at health and vitamin supplement company Nature Trade Network.

She says retailers also may want to use a tool called TweetLater that allows them to schedule tweets in advance.

Another tip is to use the # symbol in messages so that Twitter users can see all tweets related to a particular retailer or topic en masse. For example, if someone searches Best Buy, the search results will show every message with the words “best” and “buy” in them, not just ones with “Best Buy.” If a Best Buy tweeter wants to create a discussion on the retailer or on a subject, they include #bestbuy or #electronics-savvy Twitter users know to search for such #-oriented phrases, and know to include the phrases in their own tweets.

Using the @ sign is another trick. It makes a reply to a tweet public and viewable by anyone on the sender’s follower list. So, for example, if a retailer wanted all its followers to see an answer to an individual’s question, it would simply tack on the @ symbol in front of that follower’s user name. Retailers also can add automatic Twitter updates to their blogs, web sites or Facebook pages.

McKenna says being upfront about the purpose of the account is key. If a retailer sets up a Twitter account called BestDeals4Vitamins, followers will expect marketing and promotion-focused tweets. If the account is called VitaminInformation, they will be miffed by such offers, she says.

The right tone

It’s best to pique the interest of Twitter users before hitting them with marketing messages, says Jeffrey Mann, vice president of research at consultancy Gartner Inc. and author of a recent report on how businesses are using Twitter. “Earn the right to talk about the marketing aspects by saying amusing and interesting things first,” he says.

And retailers should be cautious not to be overly positive about their brand or overly negative about the competition, Mann says. “You have to understand the etiquette,” he adds.

Mann notes that retailers can follow what others are saying about them on Twitter, using tools such as Search.Twitter.com or an application called twhirl to scan for references to a company or product.

They can also use Twitter to offer advice, generating goodwill and promoting their brand, Mann says. For instance, a gardening supplies retailer might have an employee set up a Twitter account and offer gardening advice, peppering his tweets with the retailer’s name. The employee might also tack on a line to his e-mail signature encouraging recipients to follow him on Twitter.

Delight’s Tee also uses Twitter to try to generate publicity. “There are tons of reporters on Twitter,” she says. “So it’s a great way to connect with them.”

She also has generated some beneficial relationships with other companies through the network. For example, Tee found a make-up brand that was willing to partner with Delight.com, providing samples Delight.com could send customers in exchange for a banner ad on the e-retailer’s home page.

Connecting with the right types of people on Twitter is an important part of building an effective Twitter presence, McKenna says.

“I train my staff-a small army of interns-to find what I call sneezers, subject matter experts or people that others look to for advice,” she says. “We look for people like that and then we follow their gurus or people they respect.” Hopefully, they will find her Twitter account interesting and follow her back so they can receive updates about her.

There are so many Twitter users, and opportunities to communicate with them, that Twitter can easily take up a lot of time, which is something Tee is realizing. “You start digging into accounts and finding cool people,” she says. “And before you know it the dog is barking and your staff is wondering what you’ve been doing the past three hours.”

It’s too soon to say whether time spent on Twitter will generate a lot of sales. But it’s not too soon to say that Twitter has become part of the daily lives of millions of consumers, and that, as Amazon learned, online retailers must pay attention to their tweets.

katie@verticalwebmedia.com

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