How do you create a Twitter account that reflects your brand, gets you in the news, generates deep engagement and establishes a unique tone of voice? Jonathan O’Brien is the man behind @WstonesOxfordSt. He talks to Jon Fortgang about writing, social media and his mysterious character the Book Whisperer
As the notion that a brand’s content is as important as its product gains momentum, marketers have been keen to embrace the values of storytelling. But what, you may reasonably ask, does that actually entail in the accelerated world of social media marketing?
One answer is to be found, appropriately enough, on a London bookshop’s Twitter feed. Launched in August 2011 and currently racking up more than 69,000 followers, @WstonesOxfordSt is the brainchild of originator and sole operator Jonathan O’Brien. He was working as a bookseller on the shop-floor when he had the idea for an account based on his mysterious character the Book Whisperer. The result is one of the most engaging corporate accounts out there. Sage, surreal, prone to delirious flights of fancy and very funny, the account has helped rewrite what high street brands can achieve on Twitter. So where did it come from, how has it developed and what can others learn from it?
140 characters in search of a story
“It started with me writing about the store,” says O’Brien. “One day I came up with the idea that one of the books had gone mad in Hyde Park and this character, the Book Whisperer, had to go and calm it down. Over time the account’s grown into this slightly bizarre, separate world. The inspiration comes from all sorts of things I’ve read and loved. I’ve always liked that slightly strange element to writing. This is a bookshop’s account, so it wouldn’t make sense if it wasn’t telling stories.”
Key to the account’s success has been O’Brien’s artful tone of voice which enables Tweets to flit between comedy, fantasy, lyrical melancholy and topical comment. Over time the account has incorporated video and images including, memorably, the quest for some lost punctuation when in 2012 Waterstones (née Waterstone’s) dropped its apostrophe. There’ve been dinosaur invasions, unreliable histories, playful spats with other retailers and dystopian visions of social media’s future.
O’Brien has also found neat ways to create longer narrative arcs on Twitter using tools such as Storify, while ensuring individual posts remain eminently Retweetable. (Among the most shared has been this delightfully sedate drinking game: ‘Settle down with a book and a nice glass of wine. Every time you feel a bit thirsty, take a sip.’)
O’Brien says his strategy is grounded in responding to events in ways nobody else does – a tactic we’ll hear more about shortly. It was, nevertheless, a bold move on Waterstones’ part to grant him the autonomy and licence to do what he wanted with the account.
“At Waterstones each store has its own Twitter feed, which is an unusual idea,” he says. “But it’s obviously been enormously beneficial. There might have been some initial hesitation at head office but after a while, when it became clear that it was working and growing very quickly, the decision was made to let me get on with it. It’s been amazing to have that level of trust, but it’s absolutely paid off.”
B(u)y the book
The advantage of a highly engaging social media presence is obvious to any commercial organisation. But how does O’Brien quantify the specific benefits of the account to the Waterstones brand?
“When it started I was working on the shop floor and one of the aims was to bring booksellers to the front of the business again,” he says. “I think it’s done that, and really personalised the whole operation. With a lot of companies, what you get on their Twitter feeds are offers and promotions. It’s like a newsletter. With ours it’s very obvious that it’s created and run by just one person who’s completely dedicated to it. That reflects well on the business and makes us look human in a way that a lot of companies are finding it very hard to do.
“In terms of actual measurable results, we see loads of traffic going from @WaterstonesOxfordst to the blog and product pages when we link to them. We also get people coming into the store to say ‘hello’ and ask to meet me, which is quite weird. Though when that happens I always try and make sure people buy a book! It has been strange though, to see people really react to it.”
Waterstones isn’t the only brand conducting experiments with Twitter’s form and scope. Betfair Poker and Arena Flowers have also created their own very distinctive and consistent voices. But doesn’t the nature of accounts like these mean that it can be tricky to incorporate actual promotions and offers without upsetting the carefully maintained tone?
“Yes,” says O’Brien. “It can be. But there are ways to do it. We had a 20 per cent off offer recently and the Tweets got a bit more straightforward during that. I pulled back on some of the more over-the-top aspects of the voice. But it’s true – it can be harder to do conventional offers and promotions there.”
Bring the news
Nevertheless, the approach clearly works. Brand Republic has covered the account, it’s been on MetaFilter, made reddit’s frontpage three times and in 2013 the mighty BuzzFeed ran 21 reasons to follow Waterstones. The Mirror, meanwhile, picked up on the shop’s cheerfully cheap remake of John Lewis’ 2013 bear and hare Christmas ad, which replaced lavish animation with cardboard boxes and a couple of books.
One volume which definitely isn’t on O’Brien’s shelf is The Big Book of Social Media Rules. (In fact, he took a gentle pop at social ninjas with a series of Tweets in which the narrator went on a course in engagement and was encouraged to locate his ‘social media spirit animal.’ It turned out to be an octopus.) How does he plan his Tweets and ensure he’s always got something worthwhile to say?
“The drafts folder on my phone is usually full,” he says. “I’ll probably have 10 separate ideas for Tweets on the go, but they’re never finished. Stories often change on the day, but they’ll have been in my head for a week or two while I refine them and work out what goes where. Every Tweet needs to have something Retweetable in it, otherwise there’s no point. But everything also has to stand alone. I came to work on World Book Day having absolutely nothing. I’d been worrying about it for two weeks but just hadn’t had time to sit down and think about it. So everything that day was entirely off the cuff.”
Want readers? Hire a writer
Of course, that sort of rapid, irreverent response isn’t open to all brands. What advice does O’Brien have for marketers working in social media who think there’s an opportunity to do something more innovative or engaging with their company’s Twitter accounts?
“I’m the worst person to ask!” he says. “I didn’t follow any rules or protocols. I just did it. So that would be my advice, really. Just do it. If it works, you’ll have the proof right there.”
And more generally, how does he suggest marketing managers make the most of their Twitter accounts?
“My advice is to not hire an agency or someone who describes themselves as working in social media,” he says. “Hire a writer – someone who can write and have ideas everyday. Not someone who’s thinking about an ‘audience’ or a target, because that’s when you get a bunch of people just looking at each other’s work and copying it. Find someone with a good personal account or project on the go and just let them do what they do, but under the voice of your company. Twitter is a very weird, specific skill. It’s hard to do right. Anyone can write three sentences and put them on the internet. But you need to know which three sentences. My feeling is that if you’ve got something good, it will spread.”
This article originally appeared in Figaro Digital Issue 21, July 2014. Watch Jonathan O’Brien talking at the Figaro Digital Marketing Conference here.
Article by Jon Fortgang