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As consumers take to Twitter to complain about their experience with products and services, brands have been following them there. A new initiative from Twitter could make social media-based customer relations easier, but marketers will need to tread carefully.

Today, if a social media manager wants to follow up privately with a person on Twitter who has raised a complaint about their company, they first need to ask that person to follow them. Otherwise, Twitter won’t allow them to send that person a private, or direct message. It’s Twitter’s way of ensuring users aren’t spammed with unsolicited messages from people they don’t know. It’s also an awkward step for brand and user between complaint and resolution.

I’ve experienced this several times, as frustrated tweets about my experiences with brands such as Chapters and Rogers have led to satisfactory resolutions via their social media team — after the request to follow them to receive direct messages.

This is likely one of the use cases behind Twitter’s newly announced changes to Direct Messaging. Among the changes:

  • You can select an option that allows you to receive Direct Messages from anyone, whether you follow them or not (instructions here).
  • You can now reply to anyone that sends you a Direct Message, whether or not they follow you.
  • Within the Android and iPhone apps, a new Direct Message button will appear on the profiles of people you’re able to direct message.

“Previously, if you wanted to send a Direct Message to the ice cream shop down the street about how much you love their salted caramel flavor, you’d have to ask them to follow you first. With today’s changes, the ice cream shop can opt to receive Direct Messages from anyone; so you can privately send your appreciation for the salted caramel without any barriers,” said Twitter in a blog announcing the changes.

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For marketers, the challenge will be applying judiciousness in deciding when to use their new direct messaging powers. Used properly to help a customer with a problem, it can be a powerful tool for good. If abused, you risk further alienating the customer — and hearing about it on Twitter.

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