According to a study conducted by digital marketing firm Acquity Group, 45 out of 50 major retailers have active Twitter accounts. But they're not as active as they could be. Only 29 percent of those retailers that have Twitter accounts actually respond to customer questions and complaints.
That's troubling, says Keith Evans, communications director at MyUS.com.
"Leaving a tweet unanswered is more damaging than not having a Twitter profile at all, but many businesses learn this lesson too late," he says.
Even more confounding is that Twitter seems to be alone among social networks in that regard. Though fewer retailers are active on Pinterest and Instagram, most of the ones that have active accounts on those networks regularly interact with customers.
So what's the reason so many tweets directed at retailers engender no reply? Social media experts have a few theories.
Ignorance and fear
"Many businesses add social media responsibilities to an already overworked marketer, or they hire an intern or entry-level person to take it on," says SEO consultant Jen Phillips April. "They don't set clear expectations and benchmarks for success, because they don't understand the way a tool like Twitter is used."
Shari Spiewak, account executive at PR firm Breaking Limits, says that many people working for big brands view Twitter as simply perfunctory.
"They launch it uninformed of how to use the account effectively," she says. "Any client who tells me they want to create a Twitter account to have a presence on Twitter, I counsel that they have to go into it with the right intentions. They have to be ready to use it as a social dialogue tool on a daily basis, and they have to be in it for the long term."
For other big companies, the demotivating factor is fear, according to Taylor Aldredge, ambassador of buzz at Grasshopper.
"We have numerous examples from KitchenAid, American Apparel, Kenneth Cole, and others where they screwed up on Twitter and got a public backlash," he says. "Stakes are higher, and it's made brands wary of getting involved on the medium."
Lots of companies still subscribe to the idea that they can ignore complaints and make them go away, Spiewak says.
"Consumers feel empowered on that particular social network," Cimaglia says. "Today, the customer service desk is a 140-character conversation."
Why Twitter is different
On networks such as Instagram or Pinterest, where photos are the dominant mode of communication, the stakes just aren't as high.
Aldredge adds that Twitter is more of a place for people to look for news and recommendations. Complaints matter more there.
"People watch what happens on Twitter way more than they watch what happens on Instagram or Pinterest," he says. "Those tools are for visual discovery. You can't really mess too much up on those platforms."
Advice for brands
Twitter, with its empowered users, may be more intimidating than other social networks, but it's also arguably more important.
"A Twitter account is an official corporate channel of communication," Cimaglia says. "It is a reflection of the brand. Imagine having a half-finished website up and running. It is unthinkable for a large company."
Big brands should view Twitter just as they do customer call centers, says Brian Chandler, president of Commonwealth Public Relations. One person staffing a Twitter account just isn't adequate.
"In most cases, social media for retail companies should be considered a customer service communication tool, especially since a phone call is a one-to-one conversation, but social media creates a one-to-many conversation that everyone sees," he says.
Training is key, too, says David Murdico, executive creative director at Supercool Creative.
"For brands to feel comfortable putting themselves out there, they have to have people manning the account that are trained not only in answering product and service questions, but also trained in how Twitter works, damage control, [and] how to deal with haters, trolls, cyber-bullies, and people with legitimate complaints without having to run to their superiors every five minutes with questions," he says.
If a brand is just completely averse to using Twitter for customer service, it ought to say so, according to Stephanie Dressler, director at Dukas Public Relations.
"If a retailer does not plan to engage followers on Twitter, a simple tagline in the descriptor explaining that the handle is meant to be a news channel and used for outward communications only could solve the problem," she says. "Including a customer service phone number or email address would also be useful."