Twitter: white noise or business value?

Twitter: white noise or business value?
Published: 
January 2013

850 million people are active on Facebook every month. 175 million tweets were sent in through Twitter every day in 2012. Our passionate affair with social media has not burned brightly then fizzled. It is developing all the characteristics of a relationship that is here for the long-haul.

It evolved as a platform that never had a purpose, and it's hard to make up a purpose on the run.

But is social media all it’s cracked up to be? If business is to answer that question, it needs to measure whether platforms like Twitter are truly useful when it comes to delivering business goals.

The numbers are impressive. Three quarters of business-to-consumer businesses claim to win new customers on Facebook. Eleven twitter accounts are created every second. Thirty-two per cent of marketers have generated new leads via Twitter.

In the era of big data, numbers are, of course, easy to come by. The trick is translating them into credible information that tells the CEO which activities add tangible value.

It’s a trick few businesses have nailed when it comes to social media. And without reliable empirical evidence, some are questioning how close the hype surrounding Twitter measures up when it comes to key success criteria, like return on investment.

Fleur Brown is a Marketing and PR Strategist, and CEO of Launch Group, a PR agency that specialises in the tech sector.

“Twitter was an experiment when it was formed that sort of worked,” she explains. It’s failure to prove itself commercially has left Fleur disenchanted. “It’s great as a device to spread news but very immature on other levels. It evolved as a platform that never had a purpose, and it’s hard to make up a purpose on the run.”

Rod McGuiness, Social Media Editor for ABC Radio, and Twitter-coach to many leading journalists, agrees with Fleur:

“Twitter has been appealing because it is personal, informal and immediate. But for many, the experience has been altered by marketers. Brands and organisations using Twitter as just another tool has diluted its impact.”

We are, he says, obsessed with the numbers, but perhaps the wrong ones. “We put too much emphasis on growth, retweets and mentions. To make Twitter work as a great way to interact with brands, the customer must initiate the conversation – for customer service, complaints or compliments. When the conversation is initiated by the brand, it changes the game.”

“There has been enormous fanfare from commercial interests that present Twitter as an essential tool to market your business or promote your services. I’m not convinced. I don’t see a lot of proof that Twitter campaigns alone convert to sales.”

But is commercial success the point?

UQ Business School lecturer and innovation expert Tim Kastelle remains passionate about the part Twitter continues to play in his own participation in the global innovation community.

To avoid a twitter-stream of marketing messages, Kastelle recommends managing your network carefully: “I all along have been adamant about only following people, not companies. I also work hard to make sure I am retweeting others – being a service or contribution.”

“Because you construct your own network, the Twitter experience can be wildly different for everyone.” Tim measures Twitter’s usefulness not by the number of followers, but by more concrete achievements, such as research and publishing collaborations initiated entirely via Twitter. “I am working on a book with a co-author met through Twitter. I have also published articles written with others I have never met face-to-face, but correspond regularly with on Twitter.”

Questioning the value of the social media space is not to condemn it. It is a sign that it has become an integral part of business that must be evaluated, just as any other business activity is measured.

As a journalist, Rod McGuiness remains loyal to Twitter. “Although it has been disruptive, I believe all media now appreciate the benefit of Twitter’s reach, and the opportunities it brings to find new stories and a range of voices.”

To Fleur Brown, future social media evolution will be less accidental and more strategic: “The next round of social media will be purpose built for commercial and business purposes. Linkedin is a successful example. They have a strong commercial purpose and know who they are – and it works.”

This month Twitter announced the launch of an entirely new platform: Vine, a video sharing version of the 140-charater tweet, that allows 6 seconds of video instead of text. Whether Vine’s value proves commercial or purely creative remains to be seen. Businesses will only know this when they adopt success criteria relevant to their commercial goals. After all, you can’t put followers or retweets on your balance sheet.