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Why Twitter can do more harm than good

Why Twitter can do more harm than good Michael Estrin

Here's a question: When was the last time you went to a meeting, read an article on marketing, or attended an industry event that didn't feature the ubiquitous t-word -- Twitter?

Twitter is everywhere. And everyday, there are new and even greater resources on how to exploit this emerging tool. Look here, here, and here for a quick sample, and you'll get an idea of how keen marketers are to find out what Twitter can do for their brands.

So, what's wrong with Twitter? Is this one of those "Twitter-bashing" articles? Have the haters finally caught up with microblogging?

Well, before you punch out a 140-character alert and a TinyURL link to this article, consider this (hopefully) rather obvious point: Twitter is not the only game in town when it comes to disseminating your brand's message.

There. I said it. There's more to marketing than Twitter. For all its promise, Twitter is a tool, not a strategy. So before you shift the bulk of your budget to Twitter or cancel your latest campaign, take heed of the platform's limitations. The marketing professionals we spoke with do exactly that on a daily basis. And while many identify themselves as huge believers in the power of Twitter, none are so foolhardy as to insist that microblogging is a panacea.

When clients ask Anna Banks, Organic's group director, for strategies on bringing Twitter into their marketing mix, she responds with two basic questions: Is your audience on Twitter, and if so, are they active on the platform?

"Despite social mania in the Gen Y audience, relatively few use Twitter," Banks explains. "Ninety-nine percent of Gen Y (18-24) have an active profile on at least one social network, yet per comScore, Gen Ys make up less than 11 percent of Twitter users. And for the younger group who venture to Twitter, usage patterns are even more sparse. While the 35- to 44-year-old group spend nearly 20 minutes microblogging per visit, 18-24s spend only about five minutes [per visit]."

And what about those early adopting teens?

"We keep finding that, despite its viral capacity, teen adaptation of Twitter is still low, as are teens' propensity to follow brands once they're on Twitter," says Paul Soupiset, creative director at Toolbox Studios. "Twitter is a worthwhile tool to have in your marketing mix, but it is just one channel in a larger communications strategy."

Translation: Twitter may not be right for all demos. Not yet anyway.

But even more to the point, Twitter might not be a reach play now -- or ever -- when you consider its total strength against behemoths like Facebook.

"Twitter's growth alone makes it a priority for any marketer to pay attention and get involved," says John Keehler, director of interactive strategy at Click Here. "However, for our clients, it's important that we provide them with a holistic view of the social media landscape. It's with this perspective that we can see how large an audience Facebook commands. ComScore's measurement of unique monthly U.S. visitors in May reported Facebook with just over 70 million, while Twitter attracted only a quarter of the amount of visitors, with under 18 million uniques. What this means for our clients is that any social networking strategy cannot consider Twitter alone."

And then there's the debate over participation. The perception is that Twitter users are active, passionate, tech-savvy people. But that may be jumping the gun a little. Citing a recent study on how many of Twitter's members are actually tweeting, Mike Schneider, VP at Allen & Gerritsen, says that he worries about getting an accurate pulse of the community.

"A recent Harvard study says that 10 percent of users generate 90 percent of content, which is troublesome because content is how we target audiences, but we also know that many spectators are consuming content and passing it on to other social spaces like their blogs, Digg, and Facebook," Schneider explains.

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Is your brand even welcome on Twitter?
Ask a Twitter user if brands are welcome on Twitter, and you're bound to get responses ranging from an emphatic "No," to "Maybe, if they're offering something useful," to "Why wouldn't they be?"

The truth is, brands are welcome. Or at least, they are as welcome as any Twitter user who is good at tweeting. Nobody likes bad messaging, whether you're talking about friends who can't resist sharing nonsensical tidbits in their Facebook feeds, or brands that saturate the airwaves with crude, obnoxious commercials. But that may be where most brands run into trouble -- they're too cultured in the ways of one-way messaging to, shall we say, play nicely with others on a platform like Twitter.

"Typical brand blast-broadcasting simply will not work in this space," Banks says. "Users demand personal, relevant, and useful information -- or they stop following. Unless it is a stream focused on opt-in unique deals and offers (like the highly successful @delloutlet), users expect insightful two-way dialogue that reveals some of the personality of the tweeter."

That's not a limitation of Twitter per se (in fact, it could be an asset for some brands), but if your brand is still getting acquainted with interactive (and many still are), Twitter might be just a tad too advanced for now. And even the brands that are a little more advanced in the digital space may have a tough time adapting to Twitter, says Paul Ratzky, interactive director at OLSON.

"For some select brands, actual brand or product info may be enough (think Disney or Apple)," says Ratzky. "But for most, a higher purpose must be in play that offers an immediate and emotional benefit. The right answer is likely different for every brand and category. [But] brands that haven't landed on this answer [and made certain that the answer is authentic] might [do] best to avoid the space for now."

The world's smallest creative
Twitter may be a boon for copywriters blessed with succinct prose and a penchant for shooting from the hip, but the reality is that microblogging is probably too small for engaging creative, says Daniel Stein, CEO and founder of Evolution Bureau.

"It's not a very good advertising vehicle in a traditional sense," Stein says. "It's difficult to create an engaging brand story and build any sort of lasting emotion behind that story."

Click Here's John Keehler seconds that point, saying that making brand clients aware of the 140-character limit is critical because anything beyond the most basic messages requires the support of outside channels such as email, other social networks, or a full-blown website.


Is time really on your side?
If you've read even the most basic article about Twitter, you've probably heard a little bit about the kind of time commitment that the platform requires.

"Twitter creates an expectation of immediacy," says Cheryl Harrison, marketing and PR specialist at Sync Creative. "A brand must be willing to monitor Twitter and respond when necessary on a consistent basis. A few months ago, a potential crisis for an airline was created after passengers on the plane began tweeting that they had been stuck on plane awaiting takeoff for over eight hours. Local media outlets that use Twitter tried to contact the airline via Twitter and never received a response."

Such a scenario can be a disaster for any brand. But one key detail is that the media tried to contact the brand through Twitter. That's a telling fact because the brand obviously put itself on Twitter by creating an account and a point of contact on the platform. But the real-world analog to an unchecked Twitter account isn't an email gone unanswered, it's more like a wide-open storefront without the staff to respond to the customer.

No company would do that in real space. But do a search for 10 of your favorite brands on Twitter, and it's likely that you'll find an under-staffed and under-used Twitter profile. While those profiles may not cost the brand much to set up, the price of leaving them dormant could be catastrophic in a crisis.

That's not to say that a brand shouldn't be on Twitter, but if time and resources are at a premium, Twitter might do more harm than good.

Metrics, metrics, metrics
What does it mean to say that there are 10,000 people following your brand on Twitter? Is that good? Are they really engaged? Will that number translate into a verifiable marketing goal?

These are all important questions, and unfortunately, it's a little too early to get answers from Twitter.

"We hypothesize that people with high social capital (high numbers of followers) have influence over the people that follow them, and we are working on metrics that quantify the ability to resonate with followers," says Mike Schneider of Allen Gerritsen. "The value of a relationship with an elite member is still difficult to quantify, but data visualization, workflow, and CRM interfaces are constantly being fine tuned, so we are getting closer every day. In the meantime, we have excellent tools to get a macro view of important communication streams and analysts who dive into conversations to make recommendations on how to engage."

But despite improving metrics, Eric Anderson, VP of emerging media at White Horse, cautions that Twitter may never be able to deliver the metrics marketers demand, at least as those metrics apply to a typical advertising campaign.

"When the brand uses Twitter on a campaign basis, they're fulfilling that content expectation only temporarily, and usually in a pretty mercenary way: They tend to be laser-focused on whether the Twitter campaign drives hard metrics," Anderson explains. "That can work OK for the brand in the short term -- they get a more successful campaign and a case study that says that Twitter drove results. But then what? They stop contributing new content, and their followers stop following them. And they'll have a much tougher time reengaging that audience after that breach. Unlike email, where most consumers passively stay subscribed even when the content is sporadic or poor, people are much more vigilant about their social media relationships, because it's simultaneously more public and personal, and the emotional stake is higher."

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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