Twits: Why Twitter Won't Change Marketing

A couple of years from now, we'll look at Twitter as another online flash in the pan that the press and digerati got all excited about until they found the next new thing.

The hype about marketing on Twitter will sound as silly as buying islands in Second Life or crowing about your company's MySpace friends. Most of us will deny that we ever took it seriously. Twitter's main systemic problem can be summed up in this chart:


The growth in Twitter's traffic and media coverage has been impressive. But how many Twitter users are really active? As an experiment, I looked up all the "Bill Smiths" on Twitter. On May 4th, I could find 133. Of those 133 users, only 13 had 10 or more followers, 10 or more tweets and were active in the last month. So by this measurement, only 10% of Twitter's Bill Smiths are actively using Twitter.



According to Quantcast, 72% of Twitter visitors stop by once and don't come back. Only 1% of the Twitter audience visits daily and this group of "addicts" accounts for 35% of all visits. These numbers compare unfavorably to other social networks.

Of those that sign up, the retention rate is very low. According to Nielsen , 60% fail to return for a second month. This number holds true, even accounting for the websites and applications that feed into the Twitter community.

In the March 2009 Nielsen Netview, Twitter has an index of 40 against the demographic of kids 12-17, and below-average index against full-time students. The highest indexing demographic group on Twitter is Males 35-49 (167). I question the youthfulness and hipness of any media that Sarah Palin & Senator Claire McCaskill have embraced before our interns.

The demographic group where Twitter is most popular is among Internet and marketing professionals, and those who write about them.

In March, I followed each of Jennifer Van Grove's "40 Best Twitter Brands ", curious as to who these brands might be reaching out to. Surveying the first 20 followers of Rubbermaid 's tweets, I found 15 out of the first 20 followers had jobs and professions related to Internet marketing. I concluded that Twitter is an excellent way to reach people with an interest in twittering.

There are some brands doing things on Twitter that have value. But how big can that universe of brands get? And are these brands effective now only because newness and novelty? There are tens of thousands of brands trying to get our attention on a daily basis. How many brands are you willing to follow on Twitter?

The joy of feedback from your customers is great when it comes a few tweets at a time. But this is not scalable for most large companies with sizeable customer bases. The busy CEO, swamped by too many tweets, hires a team to help with the hassle. The users lose that sense of personal contact and the novelty quickly dies. Twitter becomes another customer service center and the Tweeting job(s) are outsourced overseas.

One could argue that social networks operate like Ponzi schemes. They require rapid growth to maintain interest and draw more users. There is inevitably a point where growth is limited by the size of the potential audience and the appeal of the service. When growth slows and the shine of newness fades, the network begins to wither and die.

For Internet and marketing professionals, and those that follow them, Twittering keeps one busy and provides some thrills. But on the whole, it's an exercise in self-love. I welcome those of you who disagree with me to reply to @willakerlof.

27 comments about "Twits: Why Twitter Won't Change Marketing".
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  1. Roy Perry from Greater Media Philadelphia, May 18, 2009 at 10:15 a.m.

    So true. Thanks for getting it down in writing so clearly and keeping my head from exploding. Teenagers I know think Twitter is stupid and they're the future.

  2. Christopher Dessi from Look Up Interactive, May 18, 2009 at 10:27 a.m.

    While twitter may not be the final iteration of the micro-blogging/social media sensation, the power of twitter lies in the "changing of the game". Those that are participating in Twitter realize that they can leverage, and influence large numbers of like minded people. Ask Gary Vaynerchuk – (350,000+ followers). He owns a wine store in New Jersey, and rates wine on his online Vlog. He has the wine industry shaking, and is leveraging the power of Twitter. This type of influence is hugely impactful for marketers. To say that Twitter may be gone in a few years is possibly true, but that's not to say that this type of social interaction will be gone along with it. This is word of mouth on steroids. If you look at it as if we were growing in the social sphere along the same line as in Maslow's hierarchy, we have yet to come to self actualization. Twitter may take us there (obviously currently they are not), but what they are allowing people to do is to become experts, and receive esteem from their peers and to contribute in a community. Your post is well written, and obviously well thought out, but I’d recommend perhaps getting more involved in Twitter before passing judgment. I personally didn’t see the point until I fully immersed myself. Yesterday I found a solution from my followers regarding how to remove a stain from a marble counter, shared images from a car wreck on the Saw Mill Parkway to warn other travelers, and passed on a great vacation deal that lasted only 48 hours. Twitter works…for now. Ponzi schemes offer perceived reward. Twitter has already given back with human interaction and information sharing.
    Final thought – you should follow me @cdessi

  3. Mike Spring from Voice Coaches, May 18, 2009 at 10:49 a.m.

    I think a lot of people log on to it and don't come back because they don't take the time to learn how to use it first. Those of us who use it regularly find it both addictive and a powerful marketing tool. However, I think a lot of people come to it, sign up, and then realize they have no idea what all those '@'s and 'RT's mean, so they leave. It took me a while to get used to it, too, but now that I am, I use it every day and I find it extremely helpful and, more importantly, enjoyable. Give people time to figure it out and I think it's only going to get bigger. Not to say it might not ultimately fade into obscurity, but I think you oversimplify the statistics.

  4. Louise Bendix from ComReal, May 18, 2009 at 10:51 a.m.

    I see that Tweets can be very valuable for long distance families, for journalists traveling abroad, for some limited branding but I am one of those "signed up and do not know what to say" people. Who cares? If it is really important to share I do that on Facebook or send a blast e-mail which everyone gets on their phone these days anyway.

  5. Bob Wan Qi Kim, May 18, 2009 at 11:08 a.m.

    Your facts are right on. BUT your conclusion is foolish. That little grey union patch or intersection you point out as being irrelrvant is like saying you can cut off those two small inches of your body and it won't matter.

    When in reality this tiny two inches of the internet produces 99% of the content and media online. They are the lips of the web body. This deserves a full rebuttal on my Posterous by the same name. - @journik

  6. Mark Hayden from Breakfast at 12, May 18, 2009 at 11:18 a.m.

    I agree with you and thanks for saying that the "emperor has no clothes." It's taboo lately for marketers to dis Twitter risking being labeled as behind the times. I will say that I've seen it work great for local bars and smaller clients, but it's just tiresome to keep up with all the crap. Twitter is proof that there are a lot of people out there who like the smell of their own farts.

  7. Ken Chapman, May 18, 2009 at 11:30 a.m.

    If you want to sell me something - stay off Twitter. If you want to inform and interest me in something Twitter is one of the best ways to peak my curiosity. Too many advertising people see a cheap way to push a product or a brand.

    Twitter culture that I work in is about information and interaction not about pushing produrct messaging. Marketers miss the mark when they merely see easy targets and mass audiences as a reason for using Twitter. Those poor dupes who buy Followers for volume distirbution are not getting reach, they are just making noise.

    It is a new concept of two-way social media networking and therefore about sharing and conversation. It invites you to stay on the surface or to go to engagement as you wish. It is not a variation of a traditional marketing messaging or advertising channel as too many conventional selling incrementalists presume.

  8. Jeff Weitzman from Go Factory, May 18, 2009 at 12:02 p.m.

    Why does something have to be popular with hip, young people to be worthwhile? Answer: it doesn't. If 30 and 40-somethings are heavy users of a service, it's likely they've found some value in it, and there's a good chance the younger generation may find the same value as their lives change. I'm not sure if Twitter will survive (it'll have to make some money somehow first) or if it or a successor will morph into something, but it's already had a profound effect on Facebook and other social media.

  9. Rafael Jimenez from Substance, May 18, 2009 at 3:06 p.m.

    Your chart has a flaw: the "people I care about" group is irrelevant. It has been demonstrated that people look for opinions and experiences with products and brands on the web and that they value those of total strangers, so why do you think we're limited to the people we care about? If you do a search on Twitter, or if you look at trending topics, those go well beyond the people you actively follow.

    Granted, Twitter users are not representative of the overall internet population, currently. But that might change in the following months. We'll see.

  10. Will Akerlof from Liquid Advertising, May 18, 2009 at 4:13 p.m.

    Thank you all for the constructive feedback. Here are a few responses:

    Rafael: You assume "people I care about" means "people I know". That is not what I intended. I meant: "Do I have any interest in you (as a person or organization), your opinions or your actions". If not, I am not going to find your tweets of any value. Maybe that's just me who feels that way, but I'd be very surprised if that were the case.

    Jeff: Of course Twitter doesn't have to be young and hip to succeed. I just get tired of middle-aged marketing folks (like myself) pretending that it is. Also, while I may get very little value out of Twitter, I did not mean to suggest that it has no value to anyone. Merely, that for large-scale marketing efforts, Twitter is unlikely to change the marketing landscape because of problems with scale and scope.

    Ken: I agree with you that Twitter is a two-way conversation. That's why I believe it's not scalable for most corporate marketing purposes. At a very low level of activity, two way conversations between companies and customers can be exciting and fun. But if you scale this up to a mass level it becomes "customer service" and we all know how much fun those conversations are.

    Bob: You seem to believe that Twitter can exist and thrive based on the tiny fraction of a percent that exists at the intersection of my charts. I would disagree. I suspect that to grow and thrive, Twitter requires all active users to post content with the expectation that someone will find it worth reading. If 99.9% of the people on Twitter are not doing this effectively, 99.9% will eventually stop using Twitter. And while a forum for a few select individuals to talk to each other about what they had for lunch may be fun and interesting, it is not a marketing "game changer". It's just another interesting website.

    Christopher: I appreciate the argument that I really just need to know Twitter better before I understand the value. I've only been using Twitter for a couple of months. I did go over to @garyvee on Twitter and in the first 3 pages of his tweets, don't see any about Wine. It's all random comments and a thread about his book on marketing. I think this proves my point about Twitter being an echo chamber. If the proof of Twitter's success is that there is a man who has had success selling a book on having success using Twitter. I believe you, but I am not convinced it's a new marketing paradigm.

  11. Jonas Halpren from Federated Media, May 18, 2009 at 8:04 p.m.

    Twitter has a some marketing value and I use to say up with industry trends, but I do work in this space (just to prove your point). IMHO Twitter has two major limitations.

    1) context. I find it very hard to follow conversations with out know the context. Valuable tweets can stand on their own, most don't.

    2) Twitter's main question "what are you dong"? problem is I don't care what 99.9% of the folks on twitter are doing 99.9% of the time. And asking people with nothing to say the question what are you doing ends up with millions of uninteresting or self promoting "look at me" tweets, that offer nothing a reader or brand would find useful.

    Here's a few I just read

    "coffee is for closers. i never touch the stuff myself."
    -- what???

    "Hanging out with my girlz"
    -- really? we had to know

    "there is a screaming baby on my flight make it stop"
    -- isn't there always a screaming baby on a plane

    This is just the tip of the iceberg. I think twitter (or micro blogging will continue to evolve. Just a blogging has, those with something to say and can say it well, will become influencers and therefore valuable to marketers. The rest is noise.

  12. Mickey Lonchar from Quisenberry, May 18, 2009 at 9:05 p.m.

    Will, I appreciate you going out on a limb, so to speak, by refusing to jump on the Twitter Marketing bandwagon. And I totally agree with you. The Ad Contrarian blog had its own definition of Twitter--"...essentially a way for the narcissistic to keep in touch with the feckless."

    These days, it's hip to refer to Twitter as a "game changer," but when it comes to specifics as to what it delivers on behalf of a brand that other some other social media option can't deliver better and in greater numbers, you hear the room get pretty quiet.

    At best, I can see Twitter being used as a permission marketing tool in a toolbox that's already filled with some pretty kick-ass tools.

  13. John Grono from GAP Research, May 18, 2009 at 10:18 p.m.

    Will. I hope speaking the truth does not see you pilloried, as is so often the case when someone flies in the face of the online evangelists.

    I recently caught up with a passionate Second Lifer who I met at an art exhibition some two years ago. I asked her how it was going? Totally dead and a waste of six-months of her life was the summary. I asked if she Tweeted - no way. Once bitten, twice shy.

  14. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, May 18, 2009 at 11:38 p.m.

    Twitter on its own may seem uninteresting but when coupled with other social media sites, like Facebook it can become a valuable marketing tool for the savvy. Don't treat Twitter as an isolated, "This is what I am doing" tool - Treat is as a "This is how I am helping one of my clients" tool and followers of your Facebook groups, friends and pages may well establish a rapport and commence doing business with you. It's all about the list, the relationship with the list and offer. Don't dismiss Twitter used correctly will enhance your relationships.
    Cheers - Kurt Johansen - Australia's Email Marketing Guru -

  15. Christine Sutherland from The Lifeworks Group Pty Ltd, May 19, 2009 at 12:50 a.m.

    I think that Twitter has the capacity to be useful, but it will take 2 changes. Firstly we must be able to see messages in context, otherwise we have meaninglessness. Secondly people must be more savvy about who they follow. At the moment it seems that etiquette demands you follow someone who follows you. This leads to groups which are full of spammers, scammers and porn purveyors who have nothing to add to any conversation and simply foul the nest. Unfortunately I didn't learn this lesson quickly enough and it's become a struggle to keep up with people in my target market in a meaningful way. If you seek to engage with and better understand your market, Twitter is mildly helpful but could be much better.

  16. Christine Sutherland from The Lifeworks Group Pty Ltd, May 19, 2009 at 2:23 a.m.

    PS: Will, "Echo chamber for internet marketers" was a really apt description for the great majority of what happens on Twitter at the moment :-). You summed it up.

    But internet marketing "gurus" are actually teaching their acolytes to use Twitter in just that way and those methods are bound to self-destruct. They don't realise that sending along a series of sales messages or an automated stream of news grabs is not "engaging with your audience", and doesn't build interest or loyalty, but loathing.

  17. Christopher Payne-taylor from sAY-So, May 19, 2009 at 3:52 p.m.

    Congratulations on having the temerity to say what, deep down inside, we intuitively know. Twitter doesn't change marketing and never will (though the opposite may be somewhat true).

    Twitter is just another dimestore bauble in the digital jewelry chest, soon to be lost or thrown away with the clutter of this, our most current marketing phase.

    To paraphrase the old "Twix is for kids," commercial, "Twitter is for twits." It's not young, hip, cutting-edge, or particularly useful save to the terminally anal who delude themselves into thinking they want to know every time their nearest and dearest friends burp or fart.

    In point of fact, teenagers tend to avoid tweeting and laugh at twittering adults the same way they'd laugh at anyone over 45 wearing a sideways baseball cap and using words like "bling."

    So, heads-up, all you marketeers who think you've, like, really copped to the next big thing. Once upon a time in a land long ago and far away, Irene Cara assured us she was "gonna live forever, so, baby, remember my name." Well, she didn't and we don't. Surprise, surprise, Sergeant Carter!

  18. Dean Collins from Cognation Inc, May 19, 2009 at 5:33 p.m.

    personally we love twitter at it ads value to the application we offer (along with Facebook) so even if you think it's a flash in the pan I for one like it.


  19. Hillary Fabian from Freelance, May 19, 2009 at 5:45 p.m.

    It's actually "Trix is for kids", not "Twix is for kids".

  20. Brian Hayashi from ConnectMe 360, May 19, 2009 at 5:52 p.m.

    If you're a CEO of a chain of retail shops, it's always been difficult to get insight into what's actually happening on the front line. Collecting daily receipt data is just a proxy for knowing how consumers are relating to your brand.

    If you could somehow record every conversation, any potential benefit would be wiped out by the reaction to the perceived invasion of privacy. This holds true for just about every method of trying to collect consumer sentiment, until now.

    Of course there is an enormous amount of noise out there right now. In fact, the actual amount of value is probably even smaller than your graph may indicate. I'd like to humbly offer that Twitter's systematic approach to collecting that information, combined with the growing number of tools to filter out that noise, is rapidly evolving what is so far a unique ability to capture raw sentiment in real-time.

  21. Thomas Killorin, May 19, 2009 at 6 p.m.

    Social Networking is like a room full of people chewing...and chewing...and chewing on gum that lost its flavor hours ago.

  22. Tilly Pick from Development Practice 360, LLC., May 19, 2009 at 11:15 p.m.

    Interesting and courageous piece. I'd like to refer you all back to Josh Bernoff (from Forrester) when he first talked about his book "Groundswell". Regarding social media, he suggested paying attention to the human trends and what's driving them, not the shiny metal objects as those will change tomorrow. One of my observations, for instance, is that Twitter may be the quintessential exercise of our freedom of speech. You can instantly state your opinion to millions. Never mind that most aren't looking, because it's not about who is looking but how it makes you feel.

  23. Walter Pike from PiKE, May 19, 2009 at 11:23 p.m.

    LOL, especially the conclusion from the Rubbermaid follow, I would think it likely that the first 20 followers would be industry insiders, its the next 3000 you need concern yourself with.

    Of course twitter wont change marketing, what has changed is how we think of marketing and especially branding, because of the locus of power gained from the access to information has changed, the power that marketers had has changed.

    Where people continue to get it wrong is to think that twitter or any of the other SM channels are merely new titles in the old interruption marketing paradigm. Twitter SPAM will be useless.

    Think Different - If you wish to see the value.

    BTW you can follow me @walterpike

  24. Tim Beauchamp, May 20, 2009 at 2:16 a.m.

    Sorry, It sounds like this is a little echo chamber also. No, Twitter won't fundamentally change Marketing, but to proclaim that we we all will deny that it was taken seriously or that it is a flash in the pan seems like it is contradicted by the quantity of responses you have already gotten to this post.

    Now, blogging and this whole internet thing in general, that probably won't catch on, so I will put the rest of my response on to not drown out the echos.

    Oh, and although I will deny it in the future, I can be followed at @tbeauchamp if you are not in the enlightened 72% that see twitter for what it really is.

  25. Jason Kurto from Pitch New Business, May 20, 2009 at 8:19 a.m.

    I agree, I think Twitter is on a very short life cycle. It's too hard for most to figure and it get's old very quick.

  26. Kent Stones from Callahan Creek, May 20, 2009 at 10:19 a.m.

    I think part of the challenge is that we Marketers are the ones that trying to turn Twitter into the next big marketing channel.

    Twitter is simply a tool among many that is seeking to connect people - no more, no less. There are a number of systems of the same ilk and, quite frankly, over time we'll see if any have any redeeming social value. Let's not forget these tools are simply online versions of something we've done since the dawn of humankind - socializing. Just like in any social setting, there are people that love to share a lot of information about themselves no matter how trivial and no matter who wants to hear, and others that prefer discrete, selective conversations about some specific topic of interest. Likewise, in any group you often run into someone who is just trying to sell you something or has a personal agenda. You tend to avoid/ignore them and pay attention to those with whom you have a common interest. All Twitter or other social tools do is facilitate this online.

    Because we as Marketers are unable to exploit it to sell more does not diminish its value. It simply may not be a good Marketing vehicle in the traditional sense. I do think it (or any other similar tool) might be a good communication vehicle if one is looking at ways to establish communication with those who share a common interest in something. But we'll see - nobody knows if this will be a valuable business tool or not.

  27. Langston Richardson from Cisco, May 22, 2009 at 6:10 p.m.

    If I can be brief on Friday afternoon.... I had some musing about Twitter.. and it's comes at it from the aspect of human behavior than marketing savants.

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