The inspiration for this post came from an incident that I had the other day involving a sandwich and a popular pharmacy chain. You see, having purchased my sandwich from Boots at the station and boarded my train home, I was enraged to find that one of the most heinous sandwich-related crimes had been committed – it was soggy.

Somebody had to be held accountable. So I carefully considered my options. I could phone Boots with my complaint or perhaps even write them a letter, but this all seemed like rather too much effort. ‘I know’, I thought, ‘I’ll tweet them’. Shockingly enough, however, Boots were nowhere to be found on Twitter. Not a peep.

End of my story. But it got me thinking: nowadays you might be easily forgiven for thinking that any business not wholeheartedly establishing a presence on sites like Twitter and Facebook was committing an act of corporate social suicide.

However, what is becoming increasingly clear is that marketing managers can no longer sit back and smugly pat themselves on the back at the ‘follow us on Twitter’ link on their website thinking that they’re down with the whole social media ‘thing’.

In the world of social media, simply possessing a Twitter account and updating it with the occasional press release does not suffice: engagement is the name of the game. So I thought I’d delve a little deeper into the successes and failures of corporate Twitter accounts.

The Good

It’s all very well bandying about this ‘engagement’ term, but what does it actually mean? Whilst ‘communicating with customers’ seems the obvious answer to this question, there are various ways in which companies have successfully engaged in conversation with their social media audience.

One of the simplest ways that this can be achieved is through answering customer questions. Take @VodafoneUK or @Pret_uk, for example; both are very good at offering helpful, quick advice to customers as to what to do if, for example, their phone is on the blink or they find something untoward in their Cheddar & Pickle Artisan Baguette. Given the cost and bother of phoning customer help lines, Twitter offers a fantastic opportunity for companies to prove to consumers that they are genuinely interested in receiving feedback and ironing out any problems.

Another biggie when it comes to engaging with followers is using different forms of media to keep customers interested. People are going to be way more interested in, for example, a snap of a celebrity sighting at a store, a sneak peak of a new product, or a clip of your staff doing the conga than a link to a lame press release that’s all words and no fun. Huge corporation @McDonaldsCorp has, somewhat surprisingly, got this down to an art – often tweeting pictures and replying to individual customer tweets.

Seemingly the most effective (and perhaps trickiest) method of creating a company following on Twitter is through being plain funny. The recent @ShippamsPaste fiasco (if you hadn’t heard of it, click here for the story), as well as the successes of Twitter accounts like @WstonesOxfordSt, @ArenaFlowers and @Betfairpoker go to show that purposefully not tweeting about your company at all and instead descending into surrealism and witty commentary can accumulate thousands of followers.

The Bad

Whilst it is clear that there is no hard-and-fast formula for corporate Twitter success, it is pretty easy to spot a Twitter disaster. Perhaps the worst crime is half-heartedness. If you are embracing the fast paced world of social media, you have to be prepared to stay on the ball. For example, on 11th October 2008 Costa Coffee triumphantly proclaimed ‘We’ve finally arrived on Twitter!’. A good start. Sadly, however, this is the only story they’ve tweeted in three years – and nobody likes a quitter.

Other Twitter clangers bound to get you noticed for all the wrong reasons include falling prey to phishing scams (and inadvertently directing your followers to weight loss scams or porn websites – never going to look good) or using platforms like TweetDeck without checking the length of your messages so they cut out after 140 characters and leave everybody hanging. Equally, self-proclaiming yourself a ‘thought leader’, ‘influential speaker’, ‘professional success coach’ or worse ‘social media ninja’ without being able to back your claims up will usually lead people to suspect you are a moron.

The Just Plain Boring

I know ‘boringness’ is a subjective thing. However, it is highly unlikely that any of your Twitter audience are going to connect with you if your feed is full of links to dreary press releases and retweets (unless they have a penchant for being bored to tears.)

Take Stead & Simpson, for example. Not content with selling those ‘sensible’ (hideous) school shoes that guaranteed two years of wear (and also two years of bullying by classmates), their Twitter account is equally lacklustre. In fact all of their tweets direct you to their mailing list mail-outs which still start ‘Dear {First, Name}’. I’m not bitter.

Likewise, Southeastern railways (@Se_Railway) are guilty of failing to engage with their customers. Whilst some railway providers have dedicated staff on call to answer passenger queries and complaints, Southeastern’s Twitter feed is just an automated list of service updates. Riveting stuff. The problem is that this information can be more easily accessed on their website – and if corporate Twitter accounts are all about conversing with customers, this conversation seems to be a bit one-sided.

So what lessons are there to be learnt for companies entering the Twitter realm? Here are 4 that I think are particularly important:

  1.  Be prepared to keep on the ball

If you aren’t prepared to invest time in tweeting regularly, it probably isn’t worth being on Twitter at all.

  1.  If you can’t say something interesting or helpful, don’t say anything

Twitter is a fantastic opportunity to show potential customers that you are on their level and willing to talk to them. Your Twitter account in many ways reflects and enhances the personality of your company – be funny, witty or helpful rather than bland and dreary.

  1.  Give people a reason to follow you

By providing your followers with content that they can’t find elsewhere – pictures, videos, competitions, sneak previews – everyone will want to be your friend.

  1.  Followers aren’t a measure of engagement

People will often follow companies just because of the brand name (take our Costa Coffee example – they have 4,500 followers having tweeted once). Likewise there are hundreds of thousands of spoof accounts or follow backs that will readily follow you with no intention of communicating with your brand at all. Although having thousands of followers may look impressive, this is profitless unless they are willing to engage with your brand – and ultimately buy your product or service.