You'd have to be blind to be missing the Twitter hype machine at the moment. Not since Facebook has the mass media swooned so lustfully over a social based start up. Yet whereas the momentum behind Facebook was largely driven by the groundswell, Twitter buzz is being driven directly from the top. Whether it's Ashton, Oprah, Britney or Hugh Jackman, celebrity endorsement is pushing Twitter hype beyond anything ever seen before it. And with all the mainstream media attention, it's inevitable that marketers have begun to ponder exactly how they can use it within their own their business. With that in mind, I've put together a overview of the practical marketing applications of Twitter (developed in conjunction with my good friend Matt Edge)...

While some believe that customer support is the only viable business use for Twitter, the reality is that Twitter has a range of practical applications as a marketing tool. Twitter can mean different things to different businesses based upon their objectives, resourcing and social media savvy. Indeed, many businesses have found their own unique way of making Twitter work for them. Below I've listed the core uses of Twitter as a marketing channel:

1. Supporting

Customer support is perhaps the most obvious and practical application of Twitter. Consumers talk about brands on Twitter everyday, often asking support related questions or complaining about a product, which creates an opportunity for brands to monitor Twitter conversations and respond accordingly. Comcast, Intuit & Telstra are just a handful of brands utilising Twitter to provide proactive customer support.

From a marketing perspective, the beauty of a customer support initiative is that it drives customer retention and positive word of mouth. Negative situations (customer complaints) can be transformed into positive outcomes with appropriate intervention. And of course, Twitter provides the perfect medium for affected customers to tell others about their positive experience!

2. Learning

For some organisations, jumping head first into Twitter is a bridge too far. But that doesn't mean they can't derive real marketing value from Twitter. Indeed, ongoing monitoring of Twitter provides immense opportunities to source immediate (and genuine) customer feedback. Oh yeah... and did I mention it's free...

Twitter's search functionality provides marketers with the best real time customer research tool on the planet. Want to know what customers are saying about your brand right now? Just do a Twitter search. I could go on about Twitter's research potential, but Gary Vaynerchuk is so much more entertaining than me. Just watch what he says...

3. Informing

The transmission of real time information is Twitter's key strength. Disaster situations such as Mumbai are a classic example of Twitter's ability to meet a huge thirst for immediate knowledge. Businesses can leverage the instant nature of Twitter communications to provide real time information to their customers. Sporting organisations are perhaps the best example, with teams such as the Chicago Bulls providing live commentary and updates during basketball games.

Beyond the sporting arena, real time information dissemination can become invaluable in managing a crisis situation. For example, telecommunications company TDS used Twitter to keep customers up to date with progress during a service outage. An auto manufacturer might find a similar use during a product recall. Of course, adopting a participation style based upon informing is only suited when real time information is valuable. If your customer's can afford to wait for the news, it may be best to consider another use for Twitter.

4. Promoting

While Twitter is a conversational medium, some brands have found success in utilising the channel purely as a promotional tool. Typically this entails a broadcast approach in which the brand uses Twitter to send offers to subscribers, much like many companies use email marketing. Dell is perhaps the most famous example, claiming they have generated over $1 million in sales via Twitter. Other brands to adopt the promotional approach include JetBlue and Hertz.

A word of warning on Twitter as a promotional tool though. Generally only the largest and most popular brands are successful with a promotional approach. If customers don't love your product/brand, they're unlikely to follow you via Twitter.

5. Building Community Discussion/Word of Mouth

Marketers have long been using hashtags on Twitter as a technique to aggregate community discussion. Practically every marketing conference on the planet now produces a hashtag to enable attendees to connect and interact with each other via Twitter. Brands are now starting to follow suit...

Land Rover recently launched the first high profile attempt from a brand to create widespread community word of mouth around a hashtag (#LRNY). They created the specific hashtag to centralise discussion around the launch of a new vehicle at the New York motor show. The hashtag was then promoted in both online and offline channels to generate conversation and word of mouth via Twitter. And the campaign seems to have been a success, generating an overwhelmingly positive sentiment via Twitter, while also generating a flood of free PR within the mainstream media for the innovative marketing campaign.

6. Branding

For some businesses, Twitter serves as a good old fashioned branding tool. Rather than seeking directly measurable/ tangible benefits, a number of companies are using Twitter to successfully reaffirm brand values to existing customers. Review the Twitter accounts of Popeye's Chicken and Dunkin' Donuts and you'll struggle to detect any clear business objective. But dig a little deeper and you'll realise that their participation is heavily based around branding to Gen Y. Quirky and humourous messages consolidate their desired brand position in a channel of increasing relevance to their customers. And with thousands of followers each, it seems like they're doing something right...!

Did I miss 7-10?

I've listed 6 core marketing applications of Twitter. But undoubtedly there's someone out there deriving marketing benefit in another way. If you can think of any other ways to leverage Twitter as a marketer, please add them to the list.

* Thanks again to Matt Edge for his help in pulling this framework of Twitter usage together.