NEW YORK, United States — When Robert Duffy posted his first-ever Tweet on 30 January, saying "Welcome Tweeties," he had no idea what he was getting into. What happened in the weeks that followed is an excellent lesson for fashion executives everywhere: the best way to understand social media is to use social media.
You see, Robert Duffy had never used Twitter before. In fact, he didn't really even know what Twitter was until a member of his team introduced it to him. Eventually, he warmed to the idea of using Twitter to share the behind-the-scenes action of the Marc Jacobs show, still the highlight of New York Fashion Week even after 26 years in business.
It wasn't all smooth sailing. On his second day of tweeting, Duffy accidentally deleted all of his tweets. In the days that followed, he learned about direct messaging and retweeting and privacy on Twitter. Still, Duffy stuck with it. He began each day by getting on his stationary bicycle and reading the hundreds of tweets that had come in over night, listening and responding to feedback and questions on stores, customer service, the Marc Jacobs website, and — music to our BoF ears — how to run a fashion business.
Soon, Robert became an expert tweeter, not only on the techniques and norms of using Twitter, but also by speaking authentically in his own voice and even sharing a few private moments with Marc Jacobs himself. This authenticity resonated across the fashion Twittersphere in thousands and thousands of retweets, and spreading to blog posts and articles in the mainstream media.
By February 13, the power of Twitter had really dawned on Duffy: "I have learned much from doing this," he tweeted. "Am really better for the experiance [sic]. You talk to the whole world in 1 second. Takes no time. Amazing!"
Still, he announced to his almost 7,000 followers that he would be hanging up his Twitter hat. And yesterday, after the Marc by Marc Jacobs show, his @robertcduffy handle was transformed into @MJInternational, leaving room for an as-yet unnamed someone else to fill Duffy's shoes.
In a very special exclusive CEO Talk for The Business of Fashion, I caught up with Robert Duffy backstage before the Marc by Marc show, armed with questions from our loyal BoF followers, to learn more about his Twitter experience.
BoF: Thanks Robert for speaking to BoF. First of all, what exactly prompted you to start tweeting?
Well, Daniel who heads up our website came to me and asked if we could stream the show live, and I said "Yes."
Then he said "Can we Twitter?" and I said "I don't know what it is but do you think it's a good idea?" He said "Yes." Then he came to me two days later and said "Can you get one of your celebrity friends to Twitter?" and I said "What is Twitter exactly?" Once he explained it to me I said "Absolutely not. Who's going to do that for two weeks?"
And he said "Well if we want it to be real and accurate and describe what it's like to put on a show, the only people who could do it would either be you or Marc." And so that is what we did.
BoF: People have been giving you tons of feedback via Twitter. Last night you said you received 386 tweets after the show. Someone else sent you feedback about a party in Copenhagen. And others have commented about the service in your stores. Have you been acting on this feedback and could you envision using it as a tool for customer feedback going forward?
Oh yeah, absolutely! I don't know exactly how many thousands of tweets I got, but I have been looking at them every day. I can see my phone on my TV while I am on my stationary bicycle in the morning, so I've been reading all the tweets and questions. I like that people feel like they are connected to the company. It's a real pleasure.
People thought I was being sarcastic when I was responding to that guy from Copenhagen about the party, but I really did send an email out to respond. I'm checking on it. He direct messaged me back saying "Thank you."
A lot of things have happened which have been very touching. There were some kids that didn't have any money and were trying to do stuff and so I hooked them up with some people that might help them. And one customer's fantasy in some country was to own this thing and he couldn't get it, so we sent it to him.
There were a lot of fun things that went on behind-the-scenes that I really enjoyed.
BoF: You've been taking pictures of Marc and sending them out with little messages. What does Marc think about Twitter?
Well actually he used Twitter a couple year ago, for about a day and a half. I think that he was a bit overwhelmed by it.
BoF: But he likes that you are using Twitter?
I don't know, I haven't asked him. But, yeah, I think he must. I'll ask him...he is here somewhere.
BoF: Unlike a lot of new Twitter users, you've developed a real following and an authentic voice. You have said that you're going to stop tweeting as soon as this show is over. I asked some of our followers if they had any questions for you, and a few of them just wanted me to encourage you to continue tweeting...so who could replace you?
It's going to have to be someone that travels with me, perhaps one of my assistants or somebody that can use my voice.
I have to run a company — a very large company. I'm busy. During these two weeks I am with Marc constantly. We are side by side for the two weeks before the show. I mean we are already working 18 hours a day everyday, Saturdays and Sunday. I get up every morning at 5:30, as everybody that writes me and tweets me knows.
But, I do read them all. Reading takes the most time. Sending a tweet tweet takes only 30 seconds.
BoF: Speaking of which, have you been writing all the Tweets yourself or has someone else been helping you?
I wrote every single one. And, by the way, I'm so sorry for the spelling. I went back and read some of it and went "Oh my God!"
BoF: What is the one biggest thing you learned from your time as a Twitterer these past couple of weeks?
I've learned that there are a lot of kids that want advice on how to run a business. There are a lot of kids that need a break and that there are a lot of people that don't understand how hard it is to make it in any business. I explain to them that it took Marc and I so many years. I mean, we've been in business 26 years and we didn't make any money until year 20.
BoF: Why have you found these tweets from students so inspiring?
Because I've been there. I don't want these kids to give up, you know? I can see how discouraged they are. And I know that if Marc and I weren't together we would have probably given up too.
And I want to say to them, especially the ones that have talent (they send me pictures and stuff!): Don't give up. Find a way to do it. I had to. Marc had to. We are still working two jobs to support this. But, don't do it to become famous or to become a celebrity or it because you think it's easy. It is not.
We started in 1984. When did people start hearing of us? 2000? Do you know what I mean? Do what you love because really if you do it, you'll get so much satisfaction in the end.
CEO Talk is BoF’s forum for in-depth discussions with the fashion industry’s global decision makers, conducted by founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed.
This interview has been edited and condensed.