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Jumping to Conclusions about Twitter

A research report on Twitter found that the platform would fail as a marketing medium, according to a survey of social media users. This article critiques the questions presented to survey takers and the validity of the report's resolution.

According to an article in Media Post’s Online Media Daily, Knowledge Networks is releasing a report with some surprising conclusions about social media generally and Twitter specifically.

I’m skeptical of some of KN’s conclusions.

The report is apparently (according to a check of KN’s site) based on a sample of 500 people in the US aged 13-54. KN identified social media users, which are an impressive 83% of internet users. Further, over half describe themselves as “regular users” of social media.

However, Media Post describes KN’s analysis as follows: “But for all the media industry’s hype and buzz surrounding social networks, microblogs, and other social networking platforms, the genre has failed to become much of a marketing medium, and in the opinion of the Knowledge Networks’ analysts, likely never will.”

Come again?

This sweeping conclusion is apparently based on a series of questions posed to social media users.

From the Media Post article: “Among other things, the study finds that less than 5% of social media users regularly turn to these social networks for ‘guidance on purchase decisions’ in any of nine product and/or service categories…and that only 16% of social media users say they are more likely to buy from companies that advertise on social sites.”

Based on this data, according to Media Post, KN “categorizes the value of social media advertising ‘somewhere in the long tail’ of marketing options, way below TV ads and personal, word-of-mouth recommendations.”

KN singles out Twitter as overhyped (comparing it to the huge hype over TiVO when it was first introduced), citing that only 1% of their respondents have used it, and that usage tends to be among media and social elites. So, they conclude, it is not a good way to reach consumers directly. However, KN “acknowledges that Twitter is influencing the industry conversation in a larger-than-life way, and that, in turn, will end up influencing consumer perceptions about the microblogging service, as well as other forms of social media.

First, while it’s true that Twitter is not currently a way to directly advertise to the masses, that’s beside the point. Brand perceptions are profoundly affected by elite opinion, and Twitter enables brands to reach those elites in a way that has not heretofore existed. (If you have not read Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, I highly recommend it for a compelling explanation of this phenomenon. If you have read it, it’s worth a re-read.) KN rightly acknowledges this influence but concludes that social media should be relatively low in a brand’s total marketing mix.

Second, based on the growth path of other social media networks such as Facebook, and not to mention the extent to which sites like Facebook have added Twitter-like functionalities, I think it’s highly likely that a very high number of consumers will adopt Twitter or similar services in the foreseeable future.

Third, the 5% estimate is probably too low because of the way the question was apparently framed. Asking respondents how much they turn to social media for guidance focuses their cognition on times when they specifically went to a social media site or did a search in anticiption of making a brand decision. However, brand perceptions evolve dynamically over time in response to a series of experiences. While a respondent may not look at a social media site to aid with a purchase decision, that decision will certainly have been influenced by earlier marketing messages, of which some were delivered by social media.

Fourth and finally, it is spurious reasoning to separate social media conceptually from word of mouth recommendations. Social networks are in fact an increasingly important medium for word of mouth brand communications.

Keeping all this in mind, I applaud KN for studying this issue. Much more research is needed to fully understand what’s going on in the marketplace.

- May 2009

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