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This is a brilliantly-researched guest post by Lucy Nixon, editor of Corporate Eye.

Can a mammoth fly like a falcon and sing like a nightingale?

We all “know” that big companies are slow, with huge momentum; how likely is it that they’ll react fast enough to either have a Twitter account, or to use it effectively? Is Twitter better suited to the small nimble companies than to the big guys?

Or is there something else going on?

Hoping to be surprised, I searched for Twitter accounts for the top 10 companies on the Fortune500 and the FTSE100, thinking that I would discover the US companies to be far ahead of the UK ones.

Anybody out there?

I’ve scoured the hedgerows and byways, and found that those companies using Twitter are using it very enthusiastically, often with several different accounts, while others are completely mute.

I’ve marked as inactive those companies whose names are registered but not being used, and assumed that the companies are the owners. Others, such as BP and GSK, where the obvious name is being used by an individual, or is not found, I’ve marked as ‘no’.

And if I haven’t been able to find any company Twitter account then they’ve failed in their first mission: be easy to find and sign up for. After all, what is the point of being on Twitter if no-one knows you’re there? If you are out there, then please let me know.

US companies: early adopters or more conversational?

So it seems I’m right then: the US companies are more likely to be using Twitter then the UK ones. 40% plays 10%.

Even the Tesco-owned retail chain Fresh & Easy is using Twitter, though the UK parent is not …

However, it is good to note that so many of these companies seem to have acquired and then parked their potential twitter names, to avoid brandjacking.

But why are so few of the top 10 involved?

Or perhaps — why so many? After all, why would a major corporate want to use Twitter — what’s in it for them?

And why the higher proportion of US companies — is the US more of an early-adopter than the UK, or is it that more of the US top companies are in relevant industry sectors?

Does Twitter value depend on industry sector?

Let’s try comparing some of these big companies to other companies within the same sector. Can it be that there is no useful purpose in Twitter for whole sectors of the market?

Consumer Services (Wal-Mart, Tesco)

If we look at one of the brand indices being developed , we can see that retail is a great sector for Twitter, with lots of opportunities to reach out to individuals, either in marketing, sales or support. However, compare the major companies like Walmart, Tesco, Target , Sears Holdings, and Macy’s, all with inactive accounts, with someone like @zappos … What makes the difference – is it their huge size or momentum? Perhaps it doesn’t fit with their brand?

The key here is that the companies can – if they choose, and can act fast enough – reach out to individual consumers.

Consumer Goods (BAT, GM & Ford)

The car industry, like retail, recognises that Twitter is a great tool for out-reach: GM and Ford both use Twitter. But tobacco (BAT) is a problematic sector. Peers include Altria, Imperial Tobacco and JTI. Like pharmaceuticals, perhaps there are, if not legal, then ethico-political reasons not to be on Twitter. Might be seen as advertising …

Setting aside the issues with tobacco, the consumer goods sector can use Twitter to reach out to individual consumers. The personalisation of the message, and the perceived ownership of, and interest in, the brands by the consumer is key.

Oil & Gas (ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, BG-Group)

What would an oil company tweet about? Well, @peakoil discusses peak oil and oil prices, so there obviously are things that could be said. Even if there is no need for one to one customer interaction in the same way as for @comcastcares, the oil companies could use Twitter to broadcast news, jobs and the latest prices. And perhaps Utilities, at least in their retail-customer aspects, could be seen as similar to Oil & Gas.

Or, if they wanted to get closer to the retail consumer, how about an automated Twitter response service: tweet them your location, and they tweet back the nearest petrol station and the price per litre?

The value of Twitter for business to business communication is harder to see than for business to consumer, but it may be there, since the target businesses are just people too. And I’m not the only business owner who regularly gets emails from other businesses – and if emails, why not tweets, as long as they’re useful to me?

Financials (Citigroup, Bank of America, HSBC)

Citigroup and Bank of America are commercial banks, like HSBC, and none are active on Twitter. But consider Citizens Bank of Canada (@citizensbanker) which (used to) use Twitter for conversation, or @wachovia and @UTFCU, which uses it for news and support.

Twitter seems to be working for some retail-oriented financial companies.

Telecoms (AT&T, Vodafone)

Telecoms provide a natural home for Twitter, which is used extensively by AT&T and Vodafone (I found @attblueroom, @attnews, @onwardssmallbiz, @vodafonebuzz, @vodafoneireland, @vodafonenz, @vodafoneliveguy and @vodafone_news) and it meshes perfectly with brand, product and delivery mechanism. They use it for customer support, sales offers, company news and specific marketing initiatives (good for you, @vodafoneliveguy team).

HealthCare (GSK, Astra Zeneca)

Perhaps Twitter is tricky for pharma companies, as for tobacco companies, although non-medical brands could twitter (Ribena? Aquafresh?) But it could be used for news releases, recruiting, and other communications. And for the retail-oriented healthcare companies and brands, Twitter would seem to be a useful tool, as it is for other retail companies.

Industrials/Technology (GE)

According to the Fortune500 list, GE is in Financials; I’d have said Industrials or Technology. It’s often so hard to assign labels to these mammoth companies. Whichever the sector, @GE_reports use Twitter for news, and @CapGemini use it for news and conversation. Like Telecoms, Technology is a natural place to find Twitter, and IBM, Intel, Sun, Cisco and Dell all use Twitter to very good effect, and for a variety of purposes.

Industrials includes delivery services, and although none of the big delivery firms seem to be using Twitter, @trackthis is making good use of it …

Basic Materials(BHP Billiton)

It isn’t easy to see what benefits Twitter would offer mining companies. But @RioTinto is successfully using it for news releases, so perhaps these companies could use it in broadcast mode. Interesting that Rio Tinto also works so hard on its brand management …

So what are these huge companies using Twitter for?

Twitter could be – and is being – used for a range of activities:

  • In wide-beam broadcast mode, to a non-targeted audience: corporate news broadcast, job announcements, product or service offers
  • In narrow-beam mode, a mix between broadcast and conversation, to a more targeted audience: specific marketing initiatives, internal communications, conferencing
  • In laser-beam conversation mode, to individuals: customer service, micro-blogging/ceo blogging

Some companies use Twitter in all three modes, and, more specifically, have actively segmented their audience into different groups: not only by brand or interest, as Ford do, for example, but also by stakeholder area: employee, investor relations, careers … I’ve called this ‘integrated comms’ in the table below, as I think this means that Twitter is becoming embedded into the company.

If we look at what companies in different sectors are using Twitter for, we can see that the more consumer oriented a sector, the personal and targeted the use of Twitter.

Those companies closest to the end consumer are most likely to be using Twitter, and the closer to the retail customer that a company operates, the easier it is to find value in Twitter. But one on one conversation isn’t the only option, and broadcasting may well be the best mode for some companies. Perhaps the inactive companies could try it out in broadcast mode, in one of the easier channels – such as press releases – before moving towards the more conversational modes if they chose.

This, then, explains why the top 10 US companies are more involved with Twitter than the top 10 UK companies: they are closer to the end consumer … and keen to get closer still.

Lucy Nixon is the editor of Corporate Eye which discusses best practices for the corporate website in all its different aspects (investor, responsibility, corporate governance, careers, media, and brand).