April 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

Tweet, Tweet

How e-retailers are putting Twitter to work for them—140 characters at a time.

News travels fast on Twitter, as Amazon.com Inc. discovered last month.

It was largely through Twitter, an online social network that lets users exchange messages up to 140 characters long, that word spread about gay-themed books disappearing from best-seller lists and search results on Amazon.com. Major media outlets soon picked up the story and within days Amazon admitted it made an error in classifying thousands of books, many unrelated to gays and lesbians, and that it was fixing the mistake.

Delight.com, a much smaller online accessory and gift boutique, also found itself in the midst of a Twitter controversy recently-one that worked out quite differently.

A promotion of a $130 cashmere scarf sparked a comment on Delight.com’s web site that marketing the item was “tasteless” in light of the economic downturn. Tracey Tee, Delight’s co-founder, head buyer and designated tweeter, wanted to know if others thought the same, so she sent the message-called a tweet-to Delight.com’s Twitter followers. That sparked a furious debate on Twitter-and a burst of sales of the item at Delight.com. “We blew through all the scarves within a few hours,” Tee says.

These examples illustrate the peculiar appeal of Twitter: because it only allows short messages, people respond quickly and frequently, and the sense of instant community has made Twitter the hottest thing online. Twitter.com attracted 14 million unique visitors in March, up from just 1.1 million a year earlier, according to web measurement firm Compete Inc.

Twitter has emerged so quickly that most online retailers are just beginning to consider how to use this free medium for communicating with millions of potential customers. Web merchants on Twitter have found it can generate positive results, as long as a retailer adapts to the idiosyncratic Twitter culture and technology.

Getting started

Getting started on Twitter is easy. Anyone, companies as well as individuals, can set up a free Twitter account and begin sending out brief messages. For a retailer, a key part of making Twitter effective is attracting other Twitter users to sign up to follow the retailer-which means the consumer can see the retailer’s tweets on her own Twitter page, or choose to have them sent immediately to her computer or mobile device.

Rather than sending overt marketing messages, considered a Twitter faux pas, Delight.com’s Tee tweets helpful tips, such as updates on the availability of popular products. She recently sent a message when the retailer received a shipment of popular iPod speakers and the new inventory sold out in less than a day. “I’ll say, ‘Okay everybody, we only have 12 left!’” Tee says.

She recently tweeted about a sale to mark Delight’s anniversary, generating a 10% to 20% increase in sales in the merchant’s discount section. “March was our second anniversary and we had a great sale,” Tee says. Because she thought many people did not take full advantage of Delight.com’s sale section, Tee sent out a tweet. The bump in sales the retailer received was too much to be a coincidence, Tee says.

While traffic from Twitter is still relatively low in volume, it’s high in value, Delight.com reports. “Our traffic from Twitter has been low-about 1% of all site traffic, but the conversion rate has been 15% higher than average, and the average order size is 20% above our average cart,” says Lynda Keeler, president and co-founder. The e-retailer receives about 100,000 unique monthly visitors and generated about $1 million in sales in 2008.

Beyond using Twitter to drive sales, Delight also uses it for customer service and market research.

Tee recently asked Delight’s followers if they had completed a purchase at Delight.com and was surprised to find that mothers and daughters tend to be fans of the boutique together. “So many responses were, ‘Me and my mom both shop on Delight,’” Tee says. “That’s some powerful marketing insight.”

Tee, a dog owner, also tweets about her furry friend, prompting lots of responses. Not every tweet has to be about the company and its products, she says. “Twitter is a great way to show people there are humans behind the brand.”

Friend to friend

Twitter was initially designed to enable friends to exchange brief messages. And Michael Serbinis, executive vice president and chief information officer at Indigo Books & Music, says it’s a great fit for a bookseller.

“A key part of reading is being able to talk about what you are reading with friends,” Serbinis says. “Twitter makes this really, really easy.”

Serbinis heads up the retailer’s Shortcovers division, launched in February, which sells electronic books and other publications in a variety of formats for mobile devices.

When Indigo launched Shortcovers, it also opened a Twitter account, and the retailer has attracted about 1,000 Twitter followers in less than three months. The natural instinct to chat about books has made for some interesting Twitter tales.

Top of the charts

For example, the Shortcovers program allows any author to submit content. One obscure short story, “The Virus Coder’s Girl,” about forbidden love in a hostile workplace, quickly became a top tweeted story among Shortcover users. Amid the flutter of Twitter chatter about the story, the piece became one of Shortcovers’ top 10 most-read titles, ranking alongside such popular books as Malcolm Gladwell’s novel “The Outliers,” Serbinis says.

In the short time the company has used Twitter, Serbinis has learned that you never know who might be reading your messages. One of the first followers to comment on a tweet about a bestselling book was the author himself. The tweet, sent by Neil Gaiman, award-winning author of the children’s book, “The Graveyard Book,” sparked a flurry of tweets from avid fans.

Serbinis says the retailer’s three customer service associates send out a few tweets a day with useful info such as the book of the day. And he says he’s considering trying out Twitter-only promotions or deals.

Computer manufacturer Dell Inc. already is tweeting deal offers to its Twitter followers. Dell started using Twitter in March 2007 and now has more than 11,000 followers. It mainly uses the network to tell its Twitter followers about general sales, but also has used it for Twitter-only promotions, including an offer in February for 30% off a notebook computer. The retailer says it’s generated at least $1 million in additional revenue from the network.

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