How Social Causes Can Become Part of Your Brand

Social causes can be aligned with your brand’s mission, positioning, and messaging. Some of the greatest brands have connected with causes that promote positive social change.

Brands have a unique role to play in our lives. From being superficial choices that express our style and sensibility to reflecting deeper preferences and loyalties that go beyond reason, brands occupy a space that can be personal and social. Large swaths of people can rally around a brand, and everyone has a personal origin story about the brands they love and hold dear in their hearts.

Brands are also global, and cross media and language barriers to knit into the daily threads of our life. Moreso than government agencies or public service programs, brands have an opportunity to change attitudes and behavior that can be meaningful and long-lasting.

Of course, brands exist as businesses to earn profits, but we all know that we human beings are emotional and social creatures, and we naturally seek out ways to belong and identify — even with the products we buy.

In the 21st century, we can buy pretty much anything we can afford. We can get great coffee, nice clothes, watches, good food, etc., and we rarely have to worry about the quality and effectiveness of things we buy.

So what is that added ingredient to influence our choices? It’s that magic stuff of brands that help us show and tell others – and ourselves — who we are, who we’re not, and how we want to present.

As brands continue to understand this, and a massive generational wave approaches the planet, I’m seeing more evidence that brands are moving more intentionally than ever to connect with the deepest belief systems we hold.

More than how we look and what we present, brands are opening ways that help each of us show and tell others – and ourselves – what we believe.

Should you align with a social cause? What is the risk? What is the reward? Why would it make sense for your business and your brand? These are questions only you can answer, but here are some examples of brands who have strongly and boldly connected themselves to a cause that aligns with their business and their brand.

Starbucks “All You Need Is Love” — Possibility of Peace in Our Time

This was a very simple concept from 2009. How do you get as many people representing as many countries as possible to sing the same song at one time?

Starbucks had yet to achieve the global reach they have now, but they were able to capture an idea and implement something beautiful. At a single moment, they recorded folks from around the world to sing “All You Need Is Love.” Proceeds of Starbucks drinks went to combat the AIDS epidemic in Africa, which is also a major source supplier of their coffee products.

This isn’t really controversial — who doesn’t want more love? But it shows singers from Rwanda, Israel, and other countries where there has been an overcast of violence, shining a light on the idea that there is more that brings us together than pulls us apart.

Dove “Campaign For Real Beauty” and Always “Like a Girl” — Promoting women’s & girls confidence

For over a decade the Dove Campaign For Real Beauty has been promoting a mission to help more women feel beautiful every day, and a message that asks all of us to reflect on “What is Beauty?”

Through numerous, thoughtful, and compelling ads, they have struck right at the heart of beauty standards, how we see ourselves, and what we want to show our young girls. They’ve been consistently, brilliantly, fighting for a cause that’s worthwhile and global in nature.

Here’s one from this year that’s amazing. There are tons more. Visit the Dove YouTube Channel and bring your tissues.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OufbVVpqV0

And, I’d argue that Always followed in the wake of Dove’s approach with their newer ads promoting “Always Like a Girl’ campaign to lift girls’ confidence. These ads ring true to the product, business, and brand, and push a social change that’s positive and uncontroversial. Who doesn’t want girls to be more confident and grow to be more confident women?

Lush — Organically-made self-care products with no animal testing

When you walk into a Lush store, it looks like a farmer’s market. The soaps and bombs look and smell yummy enough to eat…and they are! You can eat them! Because they’re made with natural and organic ingredients, the business is able to authentically promote a movement of pro-eco friendly.

And, since they never test on animals, they also promote animal welfare causes, too. The alignment of the business model and the cause is perfect, and reflected in the branding, typography, and in-store experience. The employees absolutely walk the talk, and believe in the company and the social causes they promote.

See some employees talk about their fresh handmade cosmetics:

I would argue that any business can find a cause that makes sense for their model and brand. The question is if the leadership in your brand is compelled to make a stand for that cause, and how the cause knits into the culture and overall position and messaging.

What about you and your business? Is there a cause you believe in? Does the cause make sense? Can it become something that makes your brand stronger?

I’d argue that Starbucks, Dove, Always, and Lush are extremely strong brands, and are made even stronger with their alignment of social causes. Of course, I’d enjoy your feedback.

Programmatic Advertising Is Running Amok

Having spent many years in the direct marketing business, I’m usually amused by examples of target marketing gone awry. My personal favorite happened when I was on Amazon purchasing a cell phone bracket for my bicycle.

Target stock imageHaving spent many years in the direct marketing business, I’m usually amused by examples of target marketing gone awry. My personal favorite happened when I was on Amazon purchasing a cell phone bracket for my bicycle. Amazon’s algorithm generated this suggestion:

Amazon wants Chuck to be a pirateNow I don’t know how frequently the pirate boots and the tri-corner hat are bought together with the cell phone mount, but I have to say that the combination was tempting for a few minutes.

The fact remains that direct marketing is not perfect. Many years ago, I made a donation to my alma mater, Rutgers College. The student on the phone asked if I wanted to designate my gift to a particular part of the University, and when I said, “No,” he said, “Well I’m in the Glee Club and we could sure use the money. Will you designate to the Glee Club?”

“Sure,” I said.

For decades now, I’ve been getting mail addressed, “Dear Glee Club Alumnus.” One day, I will attend a Glee Club reunion, certain that many people will remember my contribution to the tenor section.

While these harmless examples of imprecision are humorous, there’s nothing funny about the current exodus of major advertisers from the Google ad network and YouTube. Programmatic ad placement is a boon to target marketing, but like most direct marketing, it’s not perfect.

Major advertisers are in a tizzy over how to control where their ads appear … and the Google ad network is scrambling to get control over placement, as they should be. Advertisers need to protect their brands from appearing in an environment that can harm them.

Just a few examples: Ads for IHOP, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, “The Lego Batman Movie,” “Chips” and others have recently popped up among nude videos from everyday users or X-rated posts from porn-star influencers. Ad Age 3/6/17

A Nordstrom ad for Beyonce’s Ivy Park clothing line appeared on Breitbart next to this headline: NYTimes 3/26/17

Chuck's take on Nordstrom appearing on BreitbartHere’s a great attempt at an explanation for this juxtaposition:

“What we do is, we match ads and the content, but because we source the ads from everywhere, every once in a while somebody gets underneath the algorithm and they put in something that doesn’t match.  We’ve had to tighten our policies and actually increase our manual review time and so I think we’re going to be okay,” Schmidt told the FOX Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo. Fox News 3/23/17

Appearing next to hate speech is particularly problematic for brands:

Google-displayed ads for Macy’s and the genetics company 23andMe appeared on the website My Posting Career, which describes itself as a “white privilege zone,” next to a notice saying the site would offer a referral bonus for each member related to Adolf Hitler. Washington Post 3/24/17

The Wall Street Journal reported Coca-Cola, PepsiCo Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Dish Network Corp. suspended spending on all Google advertising, except targeted search ads. Starbucks Corp. and General Motors Co. said they were pulling their ads from YouTube. FX Networks, part of 21st Century Fox Inc., said it was suspending all advertising spending on Google, including search ads and YouTube … Wal-Mart said: “The content with which we are being associated is appalling and completely against our company values.”
Ads for Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Toyota Motor Corp., Dish Network, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Geico unit and Google’s own YouTube Red subscription service appeared on racist videos with the slur “n–” in the title. Wall Street Journal 3/24/17

And as difficult as it is for the ad networks to control, brands have their own challenges trying to protect themselves from undesirable placements. Different departments running different campaigns with different agencies cause ads to appear on corporate blacklisted sites. BMW of North America has encountered that issue because its marketing plan does not extend to dealerships. While the company does not buy ads on Breitbart, Phil DiIanni, a spokesman, noted that “dealerships are independent businesses and decide for themselves on their local advertising.” NYTimes 3/26/17

Clearly our technology’s ability to target has outstripped our ability to control it. And while it remains to be seen what controls will be put in place, it’s likely that, as always, target marketing won’t be perfect.

When Marketing and Politics Collide

America is politically obsessed right now. Each day there is at least one and often several news items that lead to a cycle of finger-pointing, name-calling and outrage. It doesn’t matter which party or candidate you endorsed, where you live or where you get your news — emotions are running high all across the land. What does this politically and emotionally charged climate mean for marketers?

Politics and marketingAmerica is politically obsessed right now. Each day there is at least one and often several news items that lead to a cycle of finger-pointing, name-calling and outrage.

It doesn’t matter which party or candidate you endorsed, where you live or where you get your news — emotions are running high all across the land. What does this politically and emotionally charged climate mean for marketers?

There have long been companies and business models defined by a cause or a philanthropic purpose. For instance, Tom’s Shoes is one of a host of buy one/give one modeled retailers that have a clear purpose built into their brand. But that’s different than consumer brands taking a stance on a timely and divisive political issue.

Well known corporate entities and brands like Starbucks, Nordstrom’s, Lyft and Amazon have all taken recent public, political positions — up to and including boycotts and legal action. Research from Morning Consult reveals the support behind that kind of activity — at least among young adults. Another study from J. Walter Thompson Intelligence further validated and quantified that finding, citing “Americans are […] overwhelmingly supportive of brands that take stances on issues: 78 percent agree that companies should take action to address the important issues facing society, while 88 percent agree that corporations have the power to influence social change.”

Does political activism help a brand with conventional brand metrics? Maybe. The Super Bowl LI ads that had a political message appeared to create more buzz, engender more sharing and had higher recall than non-political ads aired during the same game but reviews are mixed on whether these ads were effective at creating emotional connections, building brand favorability or purchase intent. Longer or deeper commitments to that strategy would presumably produce different results but that is not clear as yet and different, additional metrics must be considered when examining the effect of a political stance.

The decision to embrace a cause or take a political stance has potentially significant impact on market perception and brand performance. That impact could be positive or negative and requires a thoughtful approach to what must be a long term commitment.

Know Your Audience

We’re a nation split right down the middle on many critical issues so taking an action or position is a chancy endeavor unless your audience is well understood and unified on that particular issue. Even so, the threat remains that some will see a vocal and public position as unwarranted, in poor taste, or simply outside of the realm of a brand’s responsibility or authority.

For some niche or lifestyle brands it’s natural to take a stance on social or political fronts that relate to the brand’s value proposition. Their audiences accept and even expect it. That assumption should be validated with prior research of course, and be sure to factor in any potential backlash from broader populations exposed to ads. In general, the universe of active, political brands is expanding as consumers increasingly look for more than a transactional relationship with their favorite brands. If a consumer is going to emotionally connect to a brand, they want to know they are in sync on important matters. Social media has given both brands and consumers the tools to connect on multiple levels.

That deepened brand relationship tends to happen after brands have done the hard and time-consuming work of establishing a clear brand voice and messaging platform based on consumer information, insights and feedback. In the future, more of that work and messaging will likely be around issues, causes, and policies to help develop recommendations around social and political activism. This is not familiar territory to most marketers and they may need to reach out to consultants to help them understand and frame their options.

Corporate Responsibility

What is a brand’s obligation to enter the dialogue? There are a dizzying number of issues to consider as the link between politics and business issues is becoming more direct and more visible to consumers. The decision is unique to each company but colored by an inherent lack of control over the final message.

Brand messaging is picked up and replayed in both traditional and internet media outlets and then by consumers themselves. Consumer statements are often laced with approval or condemnation and then further exaggerated by the bubbles of self-validation that social media networks and news/opinion curation encourages. This generates an exaggerated reaction to any action or statement as the sling-shot effect of the Internet magnifies both the reach and impact within certain, connected populations. So a little potentially goes a long, long way but not always in a predictable direction. Corporate responsibility and communication officers have never been more challenged.

Starbucks’ Cups Enrage People, AGAIN

Some days I seriously wonder how humanity got this far in the world. I call those my cranky days, and yes, the past week has been full of them as people unload socially on the new Starbucks cups.

Some days I seriously wonder how humanity got this far in the world. I call those my cranky days, and yes, the past week has been full of them as people unload socially on the new Starbucks “Unity” cups.

Let’s look at the cup in question:

Okay, so that’s a nice message, and the design is pretty neat. Plus I really like green.

However, others feel VERY DIFFERENTLY about these cups. Let’s take a look at some tweets:

Fine … nothing really wrong with preferring last year’s design (though she might be in the minority, based on the hullabaloo from 2015 over the red cups).


I’m half-hoping he’s being sarcastic …

The following tweet was deleted, but not before CBS News included it in its article about the uproar over the new cups:

Seriously? These cups are giving you anxiety? Try scaling a wall of looming deadlines while planning a business trip to Lisbon (more on that below).

https://twitter.com/RadioAnna/status/793467698030211072

Ummm … political? Say what?

But everyone can chill out, because on Nov. 4, Starbucks announced the red holiday cups would return on Nov. 10, and better yet:

… Customers who buy one holiday beverage and can get another one free* to share at participating Starbucks stores in the U.S. and Canada November 10-14 from 2-5 p.m.

There? Happy yet?

Look, here’s the deal: The 2015 freakouts over the red cups and now the outrage over the green “unity” cups from Starbucks is a reminder that humans are fickle, when they don’t like something many of them will voice their distaste, and social media helps magnify this 1,000-fold.

And I know not everyone feels the way as the folks who tweeted above do … but still. There’s a lesson to be learned here for marketers. I’m not saying you can’t make changes … just be prepared.


Melissa Ward Web Summit 2016Oh hey, so I mentioned Lisbon? Well that’s because I was invited to be a speaker for the 2016 Web Summit!

I’m super excited about the experience to moderate a session on video with Suchit Dash of Dubsmash and Michael Litt of Vidyard, host a fireside chat with Youtube star Meredith Foster, attend numerous speaker dinners, help judge the PITCH startup competition, and attend countless sessions from some of the smartest people on the planet.

Envious yet?

You can follow me on Twitter as @Sass_Marketing, as well as on Instagram as Sass_Marketing to keep an eye on all that Lisbon has to offer — I’ll be back stateside Nov. 14, but will be taking that week off from the blog. You know, jet lag and all that, but I’ll be back and posting Nov. 22.

Until then, thcau!

 

Get Outta My Tweets (Don’t Get Into My Car, Though)

Is it annoying for a brand account to search/respond to indirect Tweets? Or is it in the name of good customer service, even a PR necessity?

Twitter ChatFor all intents and purposes, I’m pretty sure what I’m about to talk about is just the newest model of the age-old aggressive salesperson debate. You know the drill: You walk into a shop at the mall, or a handmade/organic soap store which shall remain nameless but is notorious for its overly enthusiastic salespeople. Maybe you know what you’re looking for, maybe you’re just browsing.

A greeter at the front of the store asks, “Can I help you find anything today?” “No thanks,” you answer, “Just looking.” Cut to 10 minutes later, you’re trying to decide which scent of bath bomb you like best, when another rep wanders over, “Have you tried this one before? Let me show you how it works! Also, have you thought about using it with this product over here?” Etc. Rinse, repeat.

If you’re anything like me, it’s more uncomfortable than it is helpful, and knowing it will happen makes me hesitant to go into a store. After all, if I wanted help, I’d ask for it. “Well, that’s your own socially awkward problem,” some might say. “They’re there to sell products, they’re doing their job.” And clearly, as this practice continues to thrive and stores continue to employ it, they have a point.

All of which brings me to the topic at hand: brands’ interaction with consumers on Twitter. First, a tiny bit of clarification: When a person tweets at a specific Twitter account with the intention of the tweet appearing in that account’s notifications, it’s known as a “direct” Tweet. (“Hey, @Starbucks, love the new flavor!”)

On the other hand, when someone tweets just the name of a person/service/company without directing it at the account via an @, the kids these days call it an “indirect” [tweet]. (“omg went to Starbucks this morning and the line was so long help.”) Indirects don’t show up in a person’s notifications, one would have to do a keyword search on Starbucks to find these. So, my question: Is it annoying, even intrusive, for a brand account to search for and respond to indirects? Or is it in the name of good customer service, even a PR necessity?

In my humble (Millennial) opinion, it’s totally the former. I know how Twitter works, I know how to get an account’s attention if I need to. If I make a passing comment, yes even a complaint, about a product, I didn’t deem it important enough to take further action and, in my mind, there’s no customer service necessary. And if it’s not a negative comment that seems necessary to address for reputation purposes, what’s the aim?

I once tweeted something like “Oh hey, there’s a School of Rock musical now, who knew?” And the School of Rock account responded minutes later: “Hey, glad to see you’re enjoying it, which song are you rocking out to??” Like … chill. You wouldn’t butt into a stranger’s conversation like that IRL.

Uber is somewhat notorious for this, usually on the basis of correcting some wrongdoing or keeping an eye on their drivers. Actually, this whole post was somewhat inspired by this guy who wouldn’t snitch. Now, again, I get it. Like the guy said, he knows Uber has a business to run and rules for their drivers to follow. But in this case, it totally backfired. And why wouldn’t it? The customer wasn’t even upset, he said right there, he was laughing so hard he had to apologize.

So now you have two things happening: The customer didn’t @ you, so clearly they didn’t feel the need to get your attention, AND the customer was perfectly content, even amused, with the situation. So … what was the point of playing customer service cop again?

Why Don’t Millennials Use Cash?

When’s the last time you saw a Millennial pay with cash? Even convenience store purchases of less than $5 are paid with a debit card. Coffee in Starbucks is paid via cell phone. Money is exchanged between friends using PayPal and Venmo.

As I paid a dinner check, my Millennial daughter affectionately quipped, “You old people and your cash!”

My response was, “Everybody likes cash!” I was wrong of course, (and perhaps prejudiced by my South Philly roots, where some businesses are still “cash only” for one reason or another).

When’s the last time you saw a Millennial pay with cash? Even convenience store purchases of less than $5 are paid with a debit card. Coffee in Starbucks is paid via cell phone. Money is exchanged between friends using PayPal and Venmo.

Many of the Millennials I give birthday gifts to prefer gift cards to specific retailers, like Home Depot or Banana Republic, rather than cash that they can spend anywhere.

A survey by TD Bank of 1,300 Americans, reported in ABA Bank Marketing last month, found that 25 percent of Americans either currently use or have used a reloadable prepaid card in the past two to three years. But among Millennials (ages 18 to 34), this proportion jumps to 33 percent. According to FICO, more than one-third of Millennials are expected to use a mobile wallet in 2015. (Opens as a PDF)

Professor Bernardo Batiz-Lazo of Bangor University, Wales, speculates that Millennials’ predisposition for non-cash transactions could eventually result in the demise of ATMs. His blog post reprinted by Newstex last month states:

“Perhaps the biggest issue shaping ATMs in the near future will concern the choices of Millennials, those for whom the Internet, mobile phones and plastic cards are a fact of life, checks are unknown and cash is quaint. They challenge financial institutions and their business models to do more, faster because they have easier and faster access to better technology than offered by the banks’ legacy systems through the multitude of apps on their smartphones, wearables, tablets and elsewhere. Left to their own devices, Millennials could spell the end of the ATM by 2035 or thereafter.”

Now of course the use of electronic payment methods is not limited to just Millennials. Boomers and Silents are also moving away from cash transactions, but Millennials are certainly leading the charge. If your business requires a minimum purchase to use a card, you’re probably losing customers among the largest demographic group. Millennials represent 24.6 percent of the population vs. 23.3 percent for the Baby Boomers.

I’m waiting to see the first panhandler with a card reader. Let me know if you spot one.

Putting the ‘Bar’ in Barista: Pricey Lattes, Capuccinos and Macchiatos … With a Beer Chaser?

With a serving concept originally generated about four years ago, and then intensively beta-tested, Starbucks has begun rolling out its new drink and munchies menu, serving beer, wine and its version of bar food to thousands of locations. The new wrinkle, called “Starbucks Evenings,” has been thoroughly designed and cascaded into key markets; and alcoholic beverages will be served only in locations where demand is expected to be—high.

With a serving concept originally generated about four years ago, and then intensively beta-tested, Starbucks has begun rolling out its new drink and munchies menu, serving beer, wine and its version of bar food to thousands of locations. The new wrinkle, called “Starbucks Evenings,” has been thoroughly designed and cascaded into key markets; and alcoholic beverages will be served only in locations where demand is expected to be—high.

Starbucks has reached 40, a mature middle age; and the chain has been actively seeking to rebuild and evolve its brand, and make its locations more a part of the neighborhood. The chain has tried “line extensions” in the past (Starbucks ice cream was a total disaster), but Starbucks Evenings is serious and strategic. The updated stores will have new, more muted colors in their interior design that are definitely a departure from what customers have come to expect—at a refurbishment cost that begins at $25,000 and can reach six figures. From many perspectives, this is a huge gamble for the worldwide chain.

Everyone understands the potential negatives: a compromising of Starbucks’ high-end coffee house image, and the business downside this can bring. Baristas need to be trained in how to sell alcoholic beverages, and may also need to be trained in how to deal with “overserved” customers. Finally, the company has to address how to accommodate the minors who frequent their locations in large numbers. After all, drinking coffee and tea is legal irrespective of age; and there may be challenges in setting up spaces for underage customers, for those adults who don’t want to be around alcohol, and for those customers who are only in Starbucks for beer and wine. Starbucks is convinced that won’t happen, in part because other chains—Chipotle Mexican Grill and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers (though a family restaurant, it’s offering dessert/alcohol combinations, such as a Mango Moscato Wine Shake)—have been doing this for some time.

On the (calculated) plus side, the company’s approach represents an opportunity to attract customers who would like to have an alcoholic beverage in a safe, calm and pleasant atmosphere and who will pay a premium for the privilege. Some of these may be new customers, who could return during the day to enjoy Starbucks’ traditional food and beverage fare. Also, the evening food and drink menu will be served at locations near public transportation, generating high levels of foot traffic.

At the end of the day (pardon the pun), it’s all about the customer experience. Starbucks believes selling alcoholic beverages is a natural progression for the company. As stated by its spokespeople, Starbucks is all about occasions for customers to gather, relax and interact with one another. And this is particularly true in the evenings, after work and after dinner, which is usually the busiest time for coffee shops and bars.

Most observers and analysts think Starbucks will succeed. As one local daytime patron, who has now included evenings in his Starbucks visits, noted: “It’s not just the wine, it’s the unwind. The atmosphere here is all part of the experience.”

A tip of the hat, a tip of the cup and a tip of the glass to Starbucks.

Talk to the (Twitter) Hand: The Perils of Non-Engagement

Every day, companies are jumping on the Twitter bandwagon—and perhaps, yours has done the same. Maybe it’s the lure of gaining new followers. Or possibly the attraction comes from all those Twitter success stories circulating the ‘Net. Or maybe it’s because Twitter takes five minutes to set up and doesn’t cost a dime. That’s OK, too. The thing is, many brands forget that Twitter is more than having a “who’s bigger” follower list or having the ability to Tweet pithy sales pitches.

Every day, companies are jumping on the Twitter bandwagon—and perhaps, yours has done the same. Maybe it’s the lure of gaining new followers. Or possibly the attraction comes from all those Twitter success stories circulating the ‘Net.

Or maybe it’s because Twitter takes five minutes to set up and doesn’t cost a dime. That’s OK, too.

The thing is, many brands forget that Twitter is more than having a “who’s bigger” follower list or having the ability to Tweet pithy sales pitches. Twitter is two-way communication, people. Not a one-sided soliloquy where you’re Tweeting solely for corporate self-gratification.

So let’s talk about two major brands that “get it” and use Twitter to its fullest potential. And then zero in on one company’s massive Twitter #fail.

Alaska Airlines and Starbucks give really good Tweets. When you read them, you get a sense that there is a person behind the computer—rather than a faceless corporate PR entity. In fact, Alaska Airlines even names the person handling the Tweets that day. And yes, their Tweets are more than just what these folks had for breakfast. For instance, Alaska Airlines promoted gift certificates and Starbucks previewed an upcoming sale on Cyber Monday (see the actual Tweets in the media player at right).

But here’s what makes both companies decidedly different: These brands engage with their customers. Starbucks and Alaska Airlines chat with their Twitter followers, answer questions and provide real-time customer service (see more examples in the media player).

Pretty cool, eh? And that’s why many people follow Alaska Airlines and Starbucks. The content is good, you know you’ll get a response and you’ll learn something. Maybe it’s early notification of a sale. Maybe it’s when in-flight wi-fi will be back. It’s useful information.

Let’s compare this to Citibank’s Twitter stream.

To say that Citibank has had reputation management issues in 2009 is putting it mildly. From taking bailout money to hiking credit card rates on some customers to 29.99 percent, the bank’s latest missteps have caused many good customers to cut up their cards. If there ever was a time for a robust social media campaign so people could “meet” the friendly customer service team members behind the scenes (that is, humanizing the corporation), now would be that time.

The good news is that Citibank has a Twitter account. The bad news is that it’s running it all wrong. Rather than using Twitter as a way to engage customers, the firm’s locking its customers out.

For instance, check out some Tweets mentioning @citibank in the media player, above, followed by a screen capture of Citibank’s Twitter page.

So, OK, let’s give Citibank the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it signed up for a Twitter handle to protect its brand identity—but doesn’t plan to leverage this account for some reason. You could almost forgive the bank … except for the Twitter account promoting the Citi Forward credit card (see the media player again, please).

Here are three problems:

  1. Although it will re-tweet, Citibank doesn’t answer Tweets (I tried)—so there’s no real interaction
  2. Saying that Citi Forward is “the card that rewards you for good behavior” seems a bit disingenuous considering that other Citibank customers with good credit histories have had their interest rates hiked to almost 30 percent.
  3. There’s no customer service component.

In short, Citibank is basically telling its Twitter followers to “talk to the hand” (or perhaps, its middle finger.) Rather than dealing with its reputation management issue head-on—communicating with folks and showing the human side behind the financial institution—Citibank is sending out Tweets that provide useful tips, yes … but talks AT its followers rather than WITH them.

If you’re planning a Twitter account (or currently maintaining one,) remember that Twitter is a real conversation (in 140 characters or less.) You wouldn’t keep a friend who constantly talked about herself, seemed oblivious to how other people perceived her and never listened to you.

It’s no different in the online world.

The perils of non-engagement in the Twitter universe are real—and the rewards for an excellent, interactive campaign are also real.

After all, what would you rather do? Tell people to talk to your Twitter hand or, instead, engage with your prospects and customers in a new, interactive (and profitable) way?

Seems to me, the choice is easy.