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This month, Pete Brown, fervent Twitterer, looks at the social media site and considers how the brewing world is talking to its consumers. If they're talking at all.

Technology, eh?

I remember, back in 1998, sitting in an ad agency, and my boss giving me a good-natured telling off for spending so much time on the internet. “It’s a fad,” he said, “It’ll never catch on, because there’s no way of actually making any money off it.”

That agency’s biggest client was Tesco, which now has a sizeable chunk of the online grocery market, worth about GBP5bn (US$7.7bn) per year.

I doubt there’s anyone left in business today who still believes the internet is a profitless fad. But incredibly, there are many who seem to still be sniffy about the most dynamic corner of the web – social media.

Last year, I wrote a story about how brewers use Twitter and Facebook, and was deeply unimpressed. Facebook was pretty popular with large brewers, but they were not using it as real people did – as a forum to keep in touch with and engage with people – but as an extra, very cheap broadcast medium: "Come to Facebook and watch our ad".

This may seem like great value when you add up the number of hits, but if you refuse to have proper conversations with your drinkers when they ask you direct questions on your Facebook page (as several big brewers do) you’re demonstrating complete ignorance of the potential of the medium, and total contempt of your most ardent fans.

But, this is positively visionary compared with the presence global beer brands have on Twitter. Even today, a quick check reveals some embarrassing stats:

Heineken has 52,800 followers. Easily the best of the big boys, but if they didn’t leave gaps of up to three weeks between tweets, they might have even more.

Carlsberg has a confusing array of Twitter accounts – Carlsberg Group has a mere 3,217 followers, but even that miserable score is better than Carlsberg UK, which can only manage 1,247.

Stella Artois has 3,241 followers, but then, they haven’t posted a tweet since August 2010. Guys, if you’re not going to do Twitter, delete the account. It's far better to have no presence at all than one that says: "We really can’t be bothered with this."

Budweiser is another titan of the industry with a few scattered Twitter accounts, the only one with any life (last post mid-April) being Bud Canada, with about 1,700 followers.

Guinness Ireland has finally managed to break 10,000 followers – but to put that into perspective, designer Lulu Guinness still has more then them, while artist Daphne Guinness has over 40,000.

Meanwhile, microbrewers have taken Twitter to heart in a way that shames their bigger rivals: Dogfish Head has over 87,000 followers, Stone 52,000, BrewDog 13,000. As a humble beer writer, even I have more Twitter followers than Bud, Stella and Carlsberg UK put together.

"So what?" you might think, "Where is the commercial value of social media in general, and Twitter in particular? What would we gain by talking to people in this time-intensive way when we – unlike microbrewers and annoying beer writers – have deep enough pockets to buy up major sporting events and shut out everyone else, or bombard people with TV and billboard advertising?"

By their actions, some big beer brands clearly still think along these lines. They don’t need Twitter, and can afford to ignore it.

Well, like my boss who thought he could ignore the internet, any brewery who still thinks this is in for a very rude awakening.

When the first standard university textbook on marketing in social media is written, one of its key case studies will be the events of early May 2012.

If you haven’t already heard: on 9 May, upstart Scottish microbrewers Brew Dog took to Twitter to inform the world of a travesty of beery justice. The Scottish branch of the BII (British Institute of Innkeeping) had an awards ceremony on 6 May, at which Brew Dog won an award. Diageo, the main sponsors of the awards, had a table at the event, and a person - or persons - at that table took exception to the judge’s decision, to such an extent that they threatened to leave the awards and abandon all future sponsorship if Brew Dog were given the award. The BII caved in, and attempted to give the award to another company – who refused to accept it, not least because Brew Dog’s name had already been engraved on the trophy.

As Brew Dog revealed the details and the Twitter hashtag ‘#andthewinnerisnot’ spread around the world, Diageo was forced to admit these sensational accusations were, and made a grovelling and humiliating public apology.  

The news value of the story has now passed, and I’m not writing this column to have another pop at Diageo. The drinks giant insists that this behaviour does not reflect their beliefs or behaviour as an organisation and, while that claim is hard for Brew Dog to stomach when one learns who was actually representing the company at the awards, that’s not the main reason for writing about it here.

The real story is that brewers can no longer afford to ignore social media, particularly Twitter.

Before social media, Brew Dog would have had to issue a press release, which probably wouldn’t have been picked up by many outlets. It’s questionable whether or not Diageo would even have felt the need to apologise.

With social media, the story spread instantly across the globe, and this in itself became part of the story, making it even more interesting for mainstream newspapers, TV and radio news who, a few years ago, may not have even become aware of it.

As a brand, you can’t choose whether you want to be on Twitter or Facebook – you’re being discussed there, whether you like it or not. If you are present, then at least you’re able to join the discussion.  You can’t control that discussion – and this is something that some marketers seemingly just can’t get through their skulls – all you can do is influence it, and attempt to engage consumers on the level. 

‘Engage’, ‘influence’, ‘converse with’ – this is the kind of language that has filled up marketing plans for years now.  Twitter levels the playing field between huge and tiny, and it allows anyone who genuinely wants to engage with their consumers to do so.  

As #andthewinnerisnot demonstrates, you ignore this opportunity at your peril.

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