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Twitter, markets, and marketing

Today’s WSJ has a good article by Sarah Needleman on companies using Twitter as a public relations tool.

Obviously, companies are paying attention to Twitter because lots of people have joined it; if it were a startup with 500 users, big companies wouldn’t care about it. But the way the massness of Twitter works may be teaching companies a lesson about the Web overall, and about markets.

Traditionally, marketing views a market as the set of potential customers — roughly, the people who are or might be made interested in the company’s offerings, and who are in a position to make a purchase. Marketers then segment their market according to some defining characteristics relevant to how the company can pique their interest and move them to completing a sale. Which means that messages define markets: Marketers choose age or ethnicity as the defining characteristics (for example) only if they think that those traits carve off a set of people susceptible to the same message.

Now, Twitter has this odd property of being able to support multiple scales: It works if you’re Ashton Kutcher with two million followers or if you’re a college kid with four followers. For Kutcher, Twitter is a mass medium. For most of his followers, it’s a far more social medium. This ability to work easily and simultaneously at scales separated by orders of magnitude is distinctive of the Web itself. Oh, sure, you could organize a phone bank to reach two million folks with your message, but that’s the opposite of an easy and natural use of telephones. For the Web, it’s just what it does.

Marketers are among those not used to this sort of continuity of scaling. Traditional marketing has aimed for the efficiencies bigger scales bring. Even the 1990s interest in “personalization” was a type of mass customization. So, it’s interesting to watch as marketers try to adjust to this new, slippery environment. The companies cited in the WSJ article seem not to be paying attention exclusively to Twitterers with huge followings. That by itself is a useful webby lesson to learn. But will marketers figure out how to make marketing scalable up and down, without violating norms or sounding like dicks?

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