What lessons can we take into 2014 from one of 2013′s best Twitter exchanges?

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Recently, UK service provider Tesco Mobile caused a welcome diversion from the November Blues when it engaged in a (by all accounts) spontaneous “Tweet-off” with a motley crew of British brands including Jaffa Cakes, Yorkshire Tea, Cadbury, Phileas Fogg, along with assorted riff raff users. The exchange quickly went viral and was enshrined on digital news blogs before the conversation had even played itself out. Here is an excerpt of the fun:

Funny Twitter Exchange

Later on, things got personal:

Funny Twitter Exchange 2

While it might have seemed like pure whimsy, this moment was not simply lightning in a bottle. Tesco Mobile’s in-house comms staff have painstakingly turned their brand’s Twitter account into the snarky kid in the class under the watchful eye and assiduous tutelage of digital agency Jam, whose strategy aimed to help the brand take the sting out of nasty customer comments by giving as good as it got.

Considering that Tesco Mobile is a service provider, and a mobile service provider at that, their Twitter account was always fated to become a platform for user-generated abuse closely resembling the seventh circle of hell for any social media manager. Opting to deal with the inevitable madness with a flippant and sometimes acerbic brand voice was a brave gamble that could have gone badly wrong. And yet it has instead been warmly accepted by the trade and customers alike.

You can bet that this frivolous piece of Reddit fodder caused a few brand managers to wonder anew what’s stopping them from pulling off a similar brand coup by getting obnoxious on social media. If you are one such, here are a few tips:

1. Be British . Anyone who has hung out with poms for any length of time will have realised that taking the p*ss out of one another is considered something of an art form. If any nation was going to take this treatment on the chin from their service provider, it was the Brits. So, if you’re not shouting for the Lions, think twice.

2. Be hilarious.

3. Add a generous dose of nice into the nasty. When a cranky consumer comes into the Tesco Mobile firing line, it follows up its comeback with gracious personal gestures such as offering free phones. Sometimes Tesco Mobile use the gesture itself to get the last word in (see point 2 above).

4. Don’t be afraid to get human. Tesco Mobile’s Twee-jays* sign on and off to announce who is tweeting that day, and are given the freedom to behave like individuals. This reminds users not to confuse the man with the monolith and to take it all with a pinch of salt.

The Tesco Mobile case study points to one other all-important guideline: when appointing someone to run your Twitter (and other social media) presence, both in terms of the marketer who conceives it and the writer(s) who execute it, make your choice very carefully. Sass is great if it fits with your brand, but good judgment in how to wield it is what will determine the consumer response. Bad taste can backfire horribly, as designer Kenneth Cole learned with his ill-conceived “tactical” Tweets on the Egypt uprising, and later, the Syria conflict. (He’s a slow learner.)

When it comes to social media, brands face the same challenge as regular people: how to create unity, or at least harmony, between one’s real-world and digital personas (a truth artfully captured in a recent TVC series for McAfee). The conventional wisdom is that since social media is an interactive space, a charismatic personality that builds on the brand image, rather than simply mirroring it, will win you more engagement. But who can you trust to articulate that voice?

There are many ways to skin this cat, but one rule of thumb you can abide by is that this is not a job for an intern or a recent graduate. As tempting as it may be, the cost savings up front could end up costing a lot more down the line in terms of brand reputation. Whether you put your internal comms team on the job, like Tesco Mobile, outsource the work to your agency, hire a dedicated resource, or convince someone in senior management to do it, make sure the person in the hot seat has the nous to choose their words wisely. (Equally, not every chief creative, editor and CEO is going to be cut out for the responsibility — once again, Kenneth Cole leaps to mind. There’s something to be said for having a manager or a client to whom you are answerable for taking risks.) Whoever you appoint, make sure they have a game plan and a style guide. And make sure they can spell.

One great example of senior management running with the ball is DKNY PR GIRL, which is voiced by Donna Karan International’s SVP of global communications, Aliza Licht. Licht is quick to answer personal questions and complaints, while her real-world status brings a touch of catwalk glamour to every interaction.

Finding a virtual middle ground between the corporate voice and the personal voice, FNB has put their account in the hands of a brand personality called “RBJacobs” — who has endeared himself to the bank’s customers through his quick and charming responses to queries. Talking to a human with a name rather than an anonymous entity has a reliable calming effect on hot tempers, even though RB is almost certainly a team of people (or a severe insomniac).

For one of our own clients, a law firm, we created seven department-specific Twitter accounts, each maintained by the relevant legal eagles after a comprehensive briefing on when, how and what to Tweet. The approach has turned them into the most-followed corporate law firm in the country.

Honda mitigated the risk of “going snarky” by keeping the voice experiment campaign-specific. For the launch of the Honda Odyssey, its corporate account Tweeted a series of “disses” aimed at US snack brands, claiming their crumbs would stand no chance against the car’s in-car vacuum feature.

A great example of how successfully one can promote from within when seeking a social media manager, Johannesburg Zoo used its limited budget to create a Twitter feed triggered by the daily antics of the resident honey badger.

To quote author Tina Fey, one way or another, it all comes down to hiring talented people, and then getting out of their way.

*This is not a word. I made it up.

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