By Ángel González The Seattle Times.
Zulily used to have the sort of Twitter persona you'd expect from an online retail site pushing discounted stuff to busy moms.
When the Seattle company tweeted things like "Chase away those post-Easter dust bunnies with our hand-picked #SpringCleaning essentials," relatively few consumers paid attention:
As of May, it had 32,000 followers, versus more than 2 million "likes" it had garnered on Facebook. Few of those followers retweeted or turned anything zulily said into a favorite.
But since summer, the site has taken on a more vivacious tone, more like a harried but funny young mother --one prone to nonpromotional, real-life quips like:
My nickname is "Mom" but my real name is MomMomMomMomMomMomMomMom-MomMomMomMomMomMom ... #Mom.
That tweet was composed by a former receptionist charged earlier this summer with giving the company an authentic-feeling new voice.
It earned nearly encouraging 26 retweets and 23 "favorites" -- not a lot when compared with some of the 140-character utterances of Hollywood stars, but plenty compared to zulily's previous track record.
It's a conscious transformation as zulily, which previously focused on image-rich social-media sites such as Facebook and Pinterest, seeks to harness the power of the wildly popular Twitter platform.
But increasingly that requires companies to act like a person -- more specifically a person who says things other people would like to share.
So organizations from Denny's to the CIA are cracking jokes on Twitter, says Kate Losse, an early Facebook employee turned chronicler of Internet culture.
"It's a weird transformation. We're not used to corporations trying to be funny," the San Francisco-based writer says.
Zulily executives knew its Twitter efforts to date, focused on promoting sales events, hadn't won much of an audience.
So they decided in May to try something new. Marketing chief David Atchison and another executive walked over to Alyssa Gay, a communications employee who up until a few months before had been staffing the front desk of the company's old offices in SoDo.
The 27-year-old was promoted from receptionist after her funny emails warning people about illegally parked cars and book sales caught management's eye.
"We have a theory that we want you to prove wrong," Gay says the executives told her. "Twitter doesn't work for us."
So Gay was handed the keys to the account.
At first she focused on finding lifestyle tips and recipes, and within a few days she started concocting what she calls "funny relatables," humorous observations that reflect on moms' day-to-day life, and that Gay feels moms are more likely to share.
On her first day she tweeted on how to depill a sweater with sandpaper.
The next day, on news of Maya Angelou's death, she cited the celebrated poet-- -- a tweet that was shared six times. Not a lot, but in the history of zulily's feed, that was a relative rarity.
"I'd never used Twitter before," Gay says. But she says she has always loved writing.
While she's not a mother, her sister has a 2-year-old and helps her connect to her audience.
She says zulily has given her pretty much a free hand on her tweets.
"I definitely like to push it," she says. "I want Twitter to be fun."
Cracking the code
Twitter is a global phenomenon, and increasingly popular. It has 271 million monthly active users and has been credited with undermining autocratic regimes and fostering instant conversations that are open to everyone.
It's been a boon for celebrities and a few super-brands. But the quirky platform has yielded few benefits in terms of additional revenue to most retailers, so most treat it as a sideshow, says Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst with Forrester Research.
Gap, the apparel retailer, has 441,000 followers. Nordstrom has 491,000. That compares poorly with singer Katy Perry's 56.4 million followers and Starbucks' 6.6 million twitter fans.
For retailers, "Twitter serves a purpose, albeit a small one, and it's often best addressed with partial attention from a marketing manager and the customer-service team," Mulpuru says.
Nevertheless, many companies are seeking to impress the minds of busy potential customers on Twitter by mimicking the way real people talk on the platform.
They are dropping direct pitches, which are a turnoff, and offering something the audience can like, retweet and speak about, says Losse, the former Facebook manager and tech writer.
"People have to engage with what you're saying, and to do that, you have to speak like a person," she says. "You have to say something that people want to share: That requires humor, requires wit."
Zulily hopes Twitter can convey its "friendly, authentic" personality, said Atchison, the marketing chief. "We want you to have a good day."
Gay tweets up to five times a day and spends hours looking for funny ideas and trying to stay on top of the zeitgeist. Whereas 90 percent of tweets used to be promotional, announcing items on sale, now about 85percent are "funny relatables," she said.
A typical posting from Tuesday: What happens at Grandma's, STAYS at Grandma's. #ExceptTheKidsSugarHighs #GrandmasRule #GrandmasRulesRule.
But when representing a company's image, humor has to be given careful consideration, Gay says.
"It's a slippery slope," she says, adding that she wants to be edgy, but resolutely stays away from controversy and avoids topics such as comparisons between men and women, which can backfire.
One of the frustrations, however, is sometimes tweets that Gay expects to be widely acclaimed are greeted by silence, either because nobody saw them or they were crowded out by other events.
In this medium, timing is key, she says. "If people don't see it after five minutes, it's gone," she says, adding that she discovered that many tweets do better after 5 p.m.
At this point, it's too early to know whether zulily's makeover has been a success, according to the company. The number of users has grown about 7 percent since May, but it's still at a relatively low 34,300.
Gay's tweets, however, have generated more engagement than before.
The record so far: 42 retweets and 30 favorites for a tweet about the challenges of waking up sleepy kids. It reads: A haiku about getting out of bed: No no no no no No no no no no no no No no no no no.