Twitter study shows the hazards of believing Twitter studies

Why do people follow brands on Twitter?  In a new study released by Twitter and Compete, apparently that question is irrelevant.  In it they claim that users exposed to a tweet by a retailer are more likely to buy from that retailer.  If this claim sounds vaguely familiar, Twitter released a similar study last month claiming that people following candidates are more likely to donate to political campaigns.

Robert Cialdini observed in his book Influence that consumers who take an action affirming a belief are much more vested in that belief.  Following a brand on Twitter is an affirmation.  The fact of the matter is that people that already have an affinity to a brand are more likely to buy that brand – and that has little to do with Twitter.  The leap in logic that Twitter wants advertisers to make is that Twitter causes people to buy from brands, instead of acknowledging that people follow brands on Twitter because they have a prior positive experience with the brand.

Is Twitter the victim of analysis paralysis?

No television channel would ever be so bold as to say that advertising on their channel will result in direct sales, yet Twitter intimates that advertising on their channel does as much.  Television channels and programming offer specific audiences for advertisers to present content to, and measurement of direct impact of said advertising is oftentimes quite muddy.

So why does Twitter need to out-do traditional advertising?  It probably lies in the deep analysis that digital advertising provides.  Compared to traditional media, digital offers limitless opportunities to understand nearly anything you want to about an ad.  That said, I doubt that most brands are analyzing as deeply as they could.  I suspect that many brands dig as deep as they need to confirm their skepticism (this despite the fact that they aren’t scrutinizing their traditional media as much if at all).

To this skepticism, Twitter responds with big promises.  Big whoppers of promises that it’s doubtful anyone really believes.

Twitter does has advertising potential

A couple of interesting points that came from the study may be more illustrative of the value of Twitter to brands.

First, the study found that Twitter users are more likely to buy from online retailers than Internet users on the whole.  This seems to indicate that for people selling online, advertising on Twitter offers an audience with a higher proclivity to buy.

Secondly, the study found correlation between the number of exposures and purchase activity (of course this is the context of advertising in general).  But if Twitter can vet out this advantage, it may be able to win over advertisers who have a proclivity towards social analytics.

Despite some promising findings, I doubt that this study is going to open the floodgates for Twitter advertisers.  The premise that Twitter impressions are directly causing an increase in sales is irrational and over-the-top.  That said, brands will find reasons to advertise on Twitter….

….but not because Twitter told them to do it.

What do you think?  Is Twitter powerful enough to drive sales as a stand alone channel?  Are you inclined to believe a study like this?

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Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at
I'm the guy that wrote the article you just read. Sorry for the typos.
  • HowieG

    I have seriously destroyed Wildfire, Facebook/Comscore because of studies they commissioned showing someone who LIKES a brand on Facebook to be similarly compelled.

    Considering my studies show on average we see maybe 1-3% of posts in our feed and maybe 10% of our followers are on twitter actively on a good day very hard to connect marketing success with twitter. They should focus on its power to support marketing with sharing, customer service etc and show those successes than trying to connect a follow with intent. For any brand that isnt a luxury brand out of reach to the 99% we tend to follow brands we already buy from.