October 19, 2009

Are marketers over-valuing Twitter?

I’ve been arguing for a while that some marketers massively over-rate Twitter when trying to measure on-line opinion. A majority of the “social media monitoring tools” put far too much emphasis on Twitter in my opinion; and now two press release from Hitwise strongly support my argument.

To summarise, I feel that focusing on twitter ends up creating a very bad sample for any kind of opinion research, practically ignoring the effect of Facebook, Beebo, Myspace, YouTube, search engines, news sites, email, blogs, forums, instant messaging, and all the millions of other websites on-line.

What is more, I believe that focusing on Twitter so strongly is what throws Twitter’s collective opinion out of line with the rest of the internet. Online marketers going to Twitter to measure internet opinion is like a market research team only inviting people who work for market research companies to give feedback on a product.

Relative Traffic

The first release that caught my eye points out that Facebook now accounts for 14.5% of all UK page views. That means that more than one in seven views in the UK is on Facebook.

In fact, Robin Goad, Director of Research at Hitwise, says “During September, Facebook received more page views than Google UK, eBay UK and YouTube combined”.

Defenders of the practice of focusing on Twitter will point out that the value of comparing page views has decreased massively in the last ten years. This is true, but Facebook is notable because viewers do spend a significant amount of time viewing their site.

As Robin Goad continues, “[Facebook’s] average visit time increased from 19 minutes 59 seconds in September 2008 to 26 minutes 14 seconds during September 2009″. That’s almost half an hour per visit to the social networking site!

Twitter users

Again, people may defend twitter at this point by saying that (although people don’t spend much time on it on average, and people don’t visit it very much on average), it offers a good cross section.

If Twitter did offer a good cross-section of the internet public, I wouldn’t be writing this post – online opinion research is all about collecting a good cross-section of people, not about finding every single comment.

Facebook has over 49% of the social networking market in the UK, where Twitter has a 2% share.

How do I know that that 2% is not representative of the UK? At this point I’ll turn to Alexa. Alexa is the traffic measuring service that’s well know for having a very strong bias towards online marketers. The reason being that it gets it’s traffic data from people who install the Alexa toolbar – and the main reason you would install it is if you are a web marketer.

Alexa has such a strong bias, that it once reported the personal blog of Matt Cutts (head of web spam at Google) as being more popular than Yahoo!.

Recieving a much higher ranking from Alexa than from other measurement services is a sign that a website’s viewers are largely online marketers themselves. Let’s see how twitter compares

According to Hitwise, Twitter is the 38th most visited site in the UK. According to Alexa, Twitter is the 12th most visited site in the UK. That’s more than enough evidence in my opinion.


Another well used defence of the over-reliance on twitter is that (since twitter doesn’t have a good cross-section of users, involves 25 times less people than Facebook, and people don’t spend nearly as much time on it), those people must be really important. In fact, they must be “influencers”. (I feel people’s logic works backwards here – starting at the assumption that the over-use of twitter is justified, and trying to find the justification).

For some reason, people keep pulling out the “influencer” card, even through study after study has shown us that “influencers” are at best impossible to detect before the event, and at worst wouldn’t have any effect even if you found them (See the 2007 Harvard Business Review list).

The argument for influencers put forward in Malcolm Gladwell’s “the tipping point” was well and truly shot down (both in acedemia and in business) several years ago, but for some reason it’s still used all the time when defending the over-use of twitter.

Direct Marketing

So perhaps the final possible defense of focusing on twitter so much is that it achieves greate direct marketing results? After all, Dell claim to have made millions of dollars through twitter. Sadly (as you probably expected as you’ve got this far through this post), this isn’t the case – Twitter sends under 10% of it’s outgoing traffic to transactional websites (c.f. 30% for Google, and 15% for Facebook). In fact, “During May, Google UK sent 365 times more traffic to transactional websites than Twitter. “.

Going Viral with Twitter

Twitter did appear to have a significant viral effect on the traffic of some sites. In particular, twitter has sent a huge amount of traffic to – so it seems that twitter does have the possibility to make some sites go viral – so long as your site is dedicated to twitter (and preferably has “twit” in the title)

Of course, the ironic thing is that if the people creating social media analysis tools are using their own tools, they won’t pay much attention to this post – simply tweeting “twitter is overrated” would have been taken as purveying more of an opinion.

Tim Wintle