Dec 012010
 
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SAN FRANCISCO — Three weeks after Curtis Kimball opened his crème brûlée cart in San Francisco, he noticed a stranger among the friends in line for his desserts. How had the man discovered the cart? He had read about it on Twitter.

For Mr. Kimball, who conceded that he “hadn’t really understood the purpose of Twitter,” the beauty of digital word-of-mouth marketing was immediately clear. He signed up for an account and has more than 5,400 followers who wait for him to post the current location of his itinerant cart and list the flavors of the day, like lavender and orange creamsicle.

“I would love to say that I just had a really good idea and strategy, but Twitter has been pretty essential to my success,” he said. He has quit his day job as a carpenter to keep up with the demand.

Much has been made of how big companies like Dell, Starbucks and Comcast use Twitter to promote their products and answer customers’ questions. But today, small businesses outnumber the big ones on the free microblogging service, and in many ways, Twitter is an even more useful tool for them.

For many mom-and-pop shops with no ad budget, Twitter has become their sole means of marketing. It is far easier to set up and update a Twitter account than to maintain a Web page. And because small-business owners tend to work at the cash register, not in a cubicle in the marketing department, Twitter’s intimacy suits them well.

“We think of these social media tools as being in the realm of the sophisticated, multiplatform marketers like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, but a lot of these supersmall businesses are gravitating toward them because they are accessible, free and very simple,” said Greg Sterling, an analyst who studies the Internet’s influence on shopping and local businesses.

Small businesses typically get more than half of their customers through word of mouth, he said, and Twitter is the digital manifestation of that. Twitter users broadcast messages of up to 140 characters in length, and the culture of the service encourages people to spread news to friends in their own network.

Umi, a sushi restaurant in San Francisco, sometimes gets five new customers a night who learned about it on Twitter, said Shamus Booth, a co-owner.

He twitters about the fresh fish of the night — “The O-Toro (bluefin tuna belly) tonight is some of the most rich and buttery tuna I’ve had,” he recently wrote — and offers free seaweed salads to people who mention Twitter.

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