Imaginative Service: Unearthing the Anthropology of Twitter


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When I was a kid I used to construct a “phone line” using a long string with an empty bean can on either end. The coolest use of the “phone” was from tree to tree. When you spoke right into the bean can, the sound carried over the string to be heard by the ear in the can on the other end. We could tell smutty jokes and trade secrets without parental eavesdropping. Now, we have Twitter between “trees.” And, all your friends can have a string connected to your “bean can.”

Customers want connections that are personalized and specific.

Organizations are trying to figure what to make of Twitter and how to capitalize on this social media. Since they can “listen in” on the “crowdalogue,” some treat it as tool to monitor “chatter” hopefully revealing customer issues and interests. Some are using it as an early warning device actually intervening to right a service wrong in the making. But, few are tapping into the real Twitter anthropology—the bean can side.

Customers want connections that are personalized and specific. They do not want to waste time with scattergun clutter from marketers. They want connections that are authentic and natural, not PR pap sanitized and hyped by some speech writer. They want connections that engage their heart as much as their head—service creativity that creates a story to share. Remember, the goal of communication is not simply to listen. The goal is to turn understanding into meaningful action. Are you using Twitter to monitor or to make a difference?

Interpreting the Buzz

A friend in his younger days clamored to keep up socially and economically with his rich older idol. (Think Bud Fox idolizing Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street.) If Walter got a new convertible then Frank just had to have one. Frank was the first person we knew to get a car phone. And, he couldn’t wait to call Walter’s car phone from his car phone. He wanted Walter to know he had finally matched him. But, his hopes were dashed when Walter answered his phone with the line: “Oh, hello Frank. Can you hold? I have a call on my other line!”

There is a side of the Blog-Facebook-Twitter buzz that is a bit like Frank trying to keep up with elder Walter. To admit you do not have a Facebook page or do not tweet all your friends about the omelet you had for breakfast is like being the only rich kid in 1975 without a two-line car phone. But, what is underneath this sudden interest in 24/7 interaction transmitted remotely. And, what can service providers learn about the willingness for a multitude to join in the chat?

Build Me a Network

Today’s customers want a network. They value organizations that can help them create and maintain that network. Examine how cleverly lets you know that “People who bought this book also enjoyed the ones pictured below.” Look at the popularity of NetFlix Friends network which allows customers an online peek at movies their friends have rented and whether they’ve given them the thumbs up or down.

Providing a network creates ways of socializing the service experience, thus ramping up affirmation that customers made a wise choice.

Ramon DeLeon manages several Domino’s Pizzas in the Chicago area. A customer (known as “Interactive Amy”) sent Ramon a tweet about her pizza being an hour late. He quickly moved into action and created a video with the manager of the “late pizza” store and posted it on the website. The two-minute video was a perfect example of how to do service recovery right. The video message was picked up by Church of the Customer Blog and quickly became an overnight hit—thousands viewed the video. But, the very end of the video invites Amy and her friends to be a part of the DPZRamon network and to visit Junior at the store anytime. TARP Institute research shows that if service recovery is handled well, a customer is not offended by the organization using a recovery conversation to ask for more business.

Providing a network creates ways of socializing the service experience, thus ramping up affirmation that customers made a wise choice. It is also a way to encourage customer storytelling––the best network glue there is. Walk into any large Starbucks and you will see evidence there are stories ready to spread. Watch how Apple uses a major trade show as a story-starting venue. Look at the posters on the walls of a Mazda Miata showroom. Is your service experience an easy story to share?

Another approach to network is to create happenings—events and alliances that attract loyalists. MacWorld is one example of this network approach; Mary Kay cosmetics is another. Then, there are the Tupperware parties and Herbalife’s regional gatherings, aimed not only at selling product but also creating a sense of belonging to those who feel the same adoration for the company and its products and services.

Network can mean creating events that function as a “watering hole” for your customers. Facilitate interactions with other customers. Provide giveaways or drawings to promote a spirit of warmth and camaraderie. Ensure there are value-added takeaways that tie your organization to the network experience. Invite a special person your customers will want to meet.

Sync It with My Identity

Identity involves finding ways the experience can be integrated into the customer’s individuality. It is the principle behind all the logo-ed paraphernalia that many customers collect. Identity might employ physical objects. It could be a coded greeting, a special expression, a mannerism, or a style. The key to making it effective is how easily it becomes a part of who the customer is and their style of living.

Figure out what makes your customers different from others and then capitalize on it. Try to get inside your customers’ minds to figure out what unique need or desire your service can address. Help your customers feel they are a part of a special group with the same allure that the “The Few, the Proud, the Marines” has for a Marine recruit. When Jeff Bezos started he wanted to create an on-line experience of the neighborhood bookstore. Since there was no bookstore clerk to tell patrons about an obscure new mystery or the best book on crocheting, he turned the job over to customers, encouraging them to write book reviews. The result was a community of book lovers, or to quote Bezos, “neighbors helping neighbors make purchase decisions.”

Each tweet and YouTube video helps move to “My” in the mind of customers. has been an amazing retail story. As the largest on-line shoe store in the world they have seen sales go from $1 million to over $1 billion in eight years. The CEO Tony Hsieh (pronounced “shay”) has achieved practically rock star status. Not only did he write a widely read white paper on how to enroll in and use, his own tweets have built a strong personal connection between customers and the brand. Company blogs feature employee produced programs, or rap songs about the company or a video of the CEO visiting to promote meet-ups around the country. There are currently over 60,000 community based meet-ups built around a common interest from hiking to clean-up. To borrow a line from the old West, branding was not just a means to identify “a cow” (like a logo) it was a way to identify “my cow” (a tool for ownership). Each tweet and YouTube video helps move to “My” in the mind of customers.

Smart organizations use social media to make obvious they truly care when “demonstrated care” is most in doubt. Do you have an effective plan for service recovery—one that insures everyone handles the next customer service breakdown with confidence and consistency? Are you tracking customer complaints to determine if there are patterns pointing to a need for service process surgery, not just a band-aid for each flare-up? And in addition to simply tracking complaints are you assertively doing the forensics that teach you about your customers’ identity—what really matters most.

And, Tell Me a Secret

Secret is not about covert actions; it’s about practices that help your customers feel like an insider. The tactic can range from inventing a special language or process, to making certain folklore is known only to customers, to having customers be the first to find out about some new development.

Walt Disney World fans know the gold paint on the carousel is really 23-karat gold-leaf and they enjoy playing the insider’s game of how many “hidden Mickey’s” they can spot–like in the shadow made by the lamp post on the pavement in Tomorrowland or formed by the lights in the loading area of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Harley-Davidson devotees know the role Willie G. Davidson (grandson of one of the founders) played in rescuing the company from AMF as it was teetering on bankruptcy.

“Secrets” is a broad label for insider information. “Grande, quad, ristretto dry cappuccino” makes complete sense to a true Starbucks fan. The Varsity in Atlanta is the world’s largest drive-in restaurant, accommodating over six hundred cars at one time. Its fans know the meaning of “walk a dog,” “Mary Brown steak,” “N.I.P.C.,” or that “Joe-ree” is coffee with cream.

Method wound up in the top twenty most innovative companies in a recent issue of Fast Company. The company manufactures environmentally friendly cleaners and is going head-to-head against the P&G’s of the world. Instead of billboards and splashy magazine ads, Method launched their own television show on the Home Shopping Network and released their first book called Squeaky Green, a home detox guide that unearths all the disgusting secrets the industry would rather you not know. Focusing on influential early adopters, they elected to educate instead of market. A quick trip around their website provides a whole new meaning to concepts like “sustainability” or “toxin.” “People against dirty” is fast becoming more than a method…it has become a movement.

“They’ve lured shoppers who hadn’t thought about environmental cleaners by getting them to come in through the back door” says Lynn Dornblaser who tracks consumer product trends at global research house Mintel. Method’s minimalist bottles of surface cleaner, detergent, soap, and air freshener—originally designed by Karim Rashid, now designed in-house—can be found everywhere from Whole Foods and Target to Duane Reade and Staples. Last year, Method opened their first European office, in London.

The twin bean cans with the string was more than a tool for childhood communication. You had a friend on the other end of the string, an important part of your network of buds. You had a means to create a special identity by boldly creating a link that circumvented the oversight of adults. The cans were also a device that enabled secret-sharing, a bonding ritual that made you blood brothers (or sisters).

The advent of social media is revealing more about our customers than simply a faddish version of the cell phone or text messaging. It informs us customers want connections that matter and a means of expression that is valued. Properly understanding the anthropology of social media can be a great boon to the principles of building customer devotion.

P.S. Don’t order the Salisbury steak at Papa Pete’s in Norfolk. But, the fried okra is to die for!


  1. John: great article. Your question “Is your service experience an easy one to share?” belongs in a frame on the walls of call centers and sales offices throughout the world. When communications were bean cans and strings, organizations felt more immune to the deleterious effects of the customer grapevine. But that’s all changed–experiences, both good and bad, are now communicated lightning fast to millions of people. The question you asked is necessary to keep that idea top of mind.

    But before every organization rushes into the Great Social Media Sandbox, there are legal risks to consider. (Full disclosure: I am not a lawyer, but I have been accused of thinking like one.)

    This link to a just-released article discusses the legal ramifications of using Twitter: Tweets Create Legal Issues for Lawyers and Employers


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