The wonderfully mundane world of Twitter

Rain. Broken shoes. Buying Christmas presents. Roads. Train timetables. None of them are particular exciting, bar perhaps Christmas, but all have, in one way or another, shown the value of Twitter and how the microblogging site has become part of our everyday world - even if it's not necessarily the best place to find answers. Two years ago - a lifetime in internet terms - a sustained period of wintery weather threatened to cancel the family Christmas as the roads and transport into and around Devon were particularly impassable in rural areas. It was difficult to get a full picture of what was passable and what wasn't and it was touch and go if I'd be joining my family.

This year, despite some of the heaviest flooding seen in Devon for many decades, there was a much better flow of information. Local radio stations and journalists used Twitter to broadcast any flood alerts and developments on the roads and rail, sharing pictures and information. Followers in the county shared eyewitness knowledge. And, most useful of all, the county council's head of Highways Operations Tweeted any road closure, dangerous roads or re-openings.

Until recently, the latter would have been completely inaccessible to members of the general public. Combined together, with a few well-targeted searches, it was possible to be completely across the travel situation in the county (and Devon is a big county) and feel confident enough not to have to reserve a hotel room in case of being trapped due to the floods.

But it wasn't just about staying informed. A friend who was joining us for New Year had already Tweeted First Great Western about rail replacement buses for her return journey before even arriving at the house. And that aspect of customer service is becoming increasingly important on Twitter - even if it's perhaps not the most effective way of achieving a result.

Recently a pair of boots we'd purchased from Schuh started to fall apart after just a couple of months. My first instinct was to check if Schuh had a Twitter account and Tweet them asking to help. Second instinct was to actually have a quick look on their website and after one easy-to-find number and an incredibly helpful call centre employee later we had replacement boots.

So, yes, not exactly thrilling, but - having spent time manning various corporate Twitter accounts over the years - the level of customer service questions is rising. Sending a Tweet is a lot quicker and easier than spending a bit of time searching for an answer online. Thankfully Schuh's website and customer service has been among the best I've seen recently (and their Twitter account seems equally helpful). A good brand should be able to proactively balance the two.

Contrast this with Debenhams, who were less than helpful when a Christmas present went astray through an error their end and was only resolved after taking to Twitter, largely in desperation at going round in circles with their phone lines, culminating in being told to buy the same gift again way before any prospect of a refund. Even that involved going round in a lot of circles (although eventually had a happy ending).

Twitter isn't - and certainly shouldn't be - the be all and end all for any company, but it certainly helps to know exactly what you're there for. And it's often quite mundane, but then that probably reflects Twitter well.

So followers of a local journalist want to know about news that affects their area, especially any road closures and similar. Local councils can make everybody's lives easier by communicating changes to bin collections.

And for a lot of brands, the intention from the marketing and PR teams may be to get onto Twitter and do something cool and fun, but a lot of their customers will be looking for it as an extension of their customer service department - and will inevitably be disappointed if this fails to live up to expectations. A recent survey from Acquity says 71% of big brands leave customer Tweets unanswered. Having great ideas to use Twitter is one thing - knowing what your audience expert is another thing all together.