Brands Are Terrible At Twitter (Brands Are Terrific At Twitter)

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If only 16% of all brand tweets on Twitter are conversational, would you say that brands are totally screwing it up?

BizReport just published a news item titled, Only 16% of brand Tweets are conversational. If you only read the title of the article, you probably had the same initial reaction I had: "Whoa, how badly do brands suck on Twitter?" Admit it, that’s exactly what went through your brain. The news item goes on to say: "Does this mean that brands on Twitter need to converse more with their Followers? I don’t believe so. Previous research found the primary reasons consumers follow a brand on the microblogging platform are to find out about new products, receive discounts and promotions and keep abreast of company news. However, some believe that in order to get the most from Twitter brands ought to be actively conversing with their Followers."

Your Twitter experience is not my Twitter experience.

Your definition of engagement is different from my definition of engagement. Admittedly, I wanted to kick myself for immediately thinking that this statistic means that brands are not doing the right thing on Twitter. But, there could be another side to this statistic too. The majority of people don’t even understand (or know) what having a conversation with a brand means. Through the affects of mass media and a pure consumption relationship when it comes to brands, marketing and advertising over the past decades, it would be interesting to see what percentage of the global population even knows that some brands are now open to dialogue, and that if you did ask them a question online (be it on Twitter or somewhere else) that there is a distinct possibility you will get a response. It’s important to remember that Social Media is still fairly nascent and that Twitter (even with all of it’s growth) is still something only a small number of the population uses and fully understands.

You can speak back to people?

On a recent episode of Howard Stern, the crew was berating Robin Quivers for her tweets (that’s part of the shtick). At one point, Stern asks Quivers if she engages in conversations with her followers, to which Quivers responded something like "no, I don’t even know what you’re talking about." Quivers (and the majority of people who hop on Twitter to simply follow celebrities and brands) are either consuming tweets from those they follow, or broadcasting mini messages out into the world (take a quick glance at Robin Quiver’s Twitter feed and you’ll note that there are not any @ sign tweets). Then, there are those who deep-dive into Twitter and get zero value out of it unless they’re deeply embedded in the conversational aspects of the platform.

You’re missing out of the conversation if all you’re doing is broadcasting.

It’s fair to say that brands that are simply broadcasting their mass media messages into Twitter are missing a huge opportunity to connect, engage and humanize their brand. It’s fair to say that brands who don’t take advantage of this new platform to do something different with their messaging – rather than simply regurgitating the same thing everywhere – are also not taking full advantage of this new marketing platform. It’s also fair to say that brands who are simply tweeting about new products, discounts, promotions and corporate news but who are actively acquiring more and more followers are doing something right that works for them too.

So, what do you think: is having only 16% of all brand tweets being conversational a good or bad thing?


  1. I’d say that oddly enough, I am not that worried by this number… at least in theory.
    Why am I not worried?
    Well, I’m a huge fan of utility. From my experiences and observations, consumers often don’t care about some of the fluffy branding that we marketers obsess over, but reward brands that offer them something relevantly useful to their life (be it for fun or pure usefulness). If some brands are finding success by simply providing information based tweets to their followers/customers, then I’m all for it, because obviously that’s what their consumers are looking for (as would suggest the previous research that you referenced). Those who do engage, I’d hope that they are finding success as well, as their consumers are looking for more engagement as the utility (be it entertainment, or practical utility based engagement). It all would depend on the insights that you’d need to garner from your potential twitter community.
    That’s all in theory though. What does worry me about this number is that I’m sure that of the 84% of brands who are aren’t engaging, only broadcasting, likely a vast majority either should be engaging (because that’s what their potential followers are looking for in a brand) or aren’t thinking much about their presence and doing the bare minimum.
    My fundamental opinion though, Twitter is a mess of massive amounts of conversation. Because of this, it is not for everyone or every brand. A brand should only engage if there is insight that says a good / influential chunk of their consumers are present and looking for some utility from them (be it actively or passively), and only if the brand is willing to pony up the resources required – which are immense.
    Thoughts? Am I off my rocker? Or did I just say the obvious stuff? Let me know

  2. I get all schizophrenic with this type of research too. I agree with you: if a brand’s Twitter feed isn’t working, they will lose followers or not see any action. If a brand is broadcasting and people are flocking to it, who are we say that it’s not working because there is no conversation?
    That all being said, I think you’re also right in that the brands that take the time to engage and build in those conversations might find even better results. The challenge is in shifting the mindset from one of broadcasting to one of conversation. It’s also a shift in understanding that a change to conversation is a lot slower and more personal to build and engage with.

  3. I see 16% as a positive. Last stat I saw said only 7% of the population uses Twitter.. so the brands are ahead, right?
    My NO RULES approach to Twitter says that if someone want to put out specials, blast some updates, or follow 1 or 1,000,000 it’s up to them. Twitter is the medium, not the message.
    But for myself, all I care about when I’m dealing with a brand is “can I engage the person who can help me?”
    If I wanted special, I suppose that those feeds would be nice. If I wanted to see what my fave celeb said while getting his tan, then I’d be happy with that.
    But I want engagement.
    I tried for months to get Cox Cable’s attention (OK.. I admit it was a few tweet and a blog post).
    Then I did this “What do you do if you don’t have @Comcast? (looking for @CoxCable to engage)” (
    Cox responded. My conclusion was that the employee who said he’d had the job for a YEAR was finally getting good at it.
    Brands need help. If we don’t expect them to listen now, we will soon.
    Social media (or whatever it’s called in the future) will be what divides the winners and the losers. A brand doesn’t have to do it a certain way, but they do have to learn how to LISTEN.

  4. It does sounds like you’re still an advocate for both, and I think that’s an important distinction. Just because you’re broadcasting it doesn’t mean you can’t engage as well and vice-versa. “Your mileage may vary,” as Seth Godin often says. My, personal, saying is: “everything is ‘with’ not ‘instead of’.” I think the brands that can find a healthy balance will be the ones with a healthy business.

  5. Though definitions of engagement are relative (as you rightly pointed out), non-conversational approaches to social media usage could undermine a brands accessibility factor. I think that one of the biggest cultural shifts that has resulted from the mass adoption of social media is the ability of people to have greater access to brands, events and even private lives. The popularity of reality shows and personal web logs are a reflection of this cultural shift. Consumers expect access to be the ‘norm’ more than ever before.
    In such a scenario ‘Broadcasting’ is only the initial step, ‘connecting’ is the next. Obviously, ‘connecting’ will be long-term and have a greater level of success if the engagement is conversational and bi-directional. Of course, this means that marketers have to rethink strategies on brand exclusivity etc.
    Can a brand connect in the longer term by just ‘broadcasting’? Especially when the consumers ‘expected access threshold’ has shifted significantly?
    Interesting times.

  6. Mitch – I’m not a big fan of “rules” on social networks. Most businesses I know (and probably you, too) are only interested in what works, and what doesn’t work. If broadcasting on Twitter works for a brand, it works. 20,000 Twitter experts chanting “that’s not the way to do it” won’t change that fact.
    As far as I know, Apple and Seth Godin are doing just fine breaking all the “rules”.

  7. Mitch – I saw that same report and even commented on Tom Webster’s post – – My comments there are the same as I would post here.
    To expand, however, based on you question, “is having only 16% of all brand tweets being conversational a good or bad thing?”

    I would say it’s good – for me, for Blue Sky Factory, for other marketers who are trying to “figure out” social media. It means I can stand out by having real conversations. It means I can engage and connect with prospects, clients, and fans. However, as mentioned in my reply to Tom’s post, it still comes down to the fact that people would rather interact with other people, not brands (for the most part).
    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

  8. I really like what Waren and Steve are saying about NO RULES, but with a slight change. There should in fact be ONE rule, and that is to simply do whatever makes sense for your brand’s unique situation and target consumer. If they want engagement, engage; if they want information, give it to them; if they’re looking for deals, done; if they aren’t on twitter, don’t bother.
    I certainly agree that the movement is towards conversation, look at any consumer behaviour statistics over the past 5 years and you’ll agree. But still, the whole world could be chatting up a storm on twitter, but if you’re selling dentures to 85 year old women, I don’t think trying to have conversations about it on twitter will be the right idea.
    PS – good to know you get a bit schizophrenic too

  9. Mitch,
    It’s refreshing to see a balanced take on this – I’m in the camp that believes while “being conversational” (or engaging) is one way to succeed on Twitter, it’s not the only way. And there seems to be more and more data points piling up that indicate (dare I say) simple broadcasting strategies can be very effective in many instances (and likely easier to derive ROI from).
    In my blog post from August 5th, I point towards 3 interesting examples on this front: @woot (one of the most popular brands on Twitter, do nothing but broadcast their daily deals); @Zappos (also among the most popular, managed by the CEO, not conversational / engaging at all); and @mashable (it seems interesting that THE social media guide uses Twitter to simply broadcast links to articles). There are of course many more.
    It’s interesting – many social media enthusiasts are quick to condemn marketers that use “broadcasting” strategies, because that’s not what customers want (preferring “conversations”). But in doing so, they’re not necessarily paying attention to what customers actually want (i.e. repeating the worst mistake “traditional” marketers are often accused of), as indicated by their following patterns. And I think as more and more people (hopefully) join platforms like Twitter, the trend may very well be away from conversations, as the sheer volume of information that is generated by them can quickly get overwhelming.
    Anyways – enjoyed your post. Thanks.

  10. I agree, but I’m not sure that one leads to another. I see them more as parallels. For instance, you can be doing advertising on Facebook and engagement in the pages. Broadcasting doesn’t have to lead to conversation. In fact, you might need very different strategies and tactics to make both work effectively.

  11. Maybe “rules” is the wrong framework. Maybe we need to understand the culture. What is the culture of Twitter and how does our brand add value to that culture? It’s also a bigger questions, but it’s probably a better one to grapple through.

  12. So, the Blue Sky Factory brand favours conversation. Who knows, maybe there is another email service provider that would benefit from broadcasting tips, tricks or when servers are down, etc… Each brand must find its own voice.

  13. I’m left wondering if when we say “this is what customers want,” what we’re really saying is, “this is what we think the platforms should be.” We need to be careful. A lot of the new research on Twitter does point to a world where people are broadcasting and others are simply following. Maybe the conversation is only happening within the early adopter circles.

  14. This one really strikes a nerve with me but with such great additional content in the comments, I’m inclined to keep my mouth shut and absorb on this one. Ironically, yet another way a brand can choose to use twitter or any new media tool for that matter, I suppose.

  15. Mitch – Thanks for the reply. I think there certainly is a market for that. In fact, @ESPs is just a twitter feed of ESP blog posts. So, maybe that’s it.
    Hope all is well up north.
    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

  16. Thanks Mitch, good read. I tweet for 2 consumer food brands. I think that joining the conversation is very important, but you have to find the relevant conversation to join. I would say that my tweets are 40% promoting others (restaurants, chefs, etc), 40% providing industry information (recipes, articles, etc) and about 20% conversation (answering questions from keywords and direct q’s). This has not been completely planned, I join every conversation I can, but only if it is relevant. My rules for myself are 1. no direct selling (yet) 2. Be relevant to the YOUR industry and 3. Be real. With all that said, 16% seems about right if you are doing valuable things with the other 84%.

  17. I think brands are limiting their impact when they don’t engage in a way that stimulates conversation. But if the stuff they broadcast shows they have been listening to their audience through other channels and are giving them the answers the asked for, maybe 16% conversation is okay. If a brand’s tweets are frequently retweeted, that can be a sign that the followers are interested. I’m assuming retweets were not considered as “conversation” when they came up with the 16% figure.

  18. Mitch:
    My initial reaction was pretty much the same as yours, “geez, they really don’t get it, do they?” But, it was nice to see both sides of the argument presented in a way that got me thinking. I’m a marketer like yourself and often find myself pushing for a more grey area in social media when talking with my social media purist friends. Yet, this was one rule I’ve always held dear. Reading your post and the subsequent comments, I can think of plenty of “exceptions” to this rule that are working very well, thank you.
    Still I think there is much more potential for a brand to get more out of the platform if they engage in conversations with their customers. Just because they’re doing well just broadcasting doesn’t mean they couldn’t be doing better if they were mixing more conversation into the mix. In fact, I’m pretty sure they would see benefits if they started talking with instead of at their followers. So, I guess I’ll still tell clients that they need to be in the conversation business on his platform, but won’t close my mind completely to the fact that it can be used to connect with customers merely by telling them things they want to here.

  19. I like Warrens thought and also agree on the with not against pholisophy. We need the engagement Warren talks of, I think yes broadcasting is not a great stategy. If you have an intern Tweeting maybe that is the same too. They might be at least get the engagement bit right.
    Brands are terrific at Twitter but people suck at Twitter. You need to study the early adopters, model their behavoirs to make sure you have something to offer, your doing right . But remember new adopters have a new take so you can be right some of the time too! Reallythink if your intern is friending up 1500 people, then you need to pack up shop on Twitter. You need to get on their yourself.
    I think your point on the podcaston Tony Hayward and BP. Hiring a PR professional might be worth that money or at least people who know what to do!

  20. Mitch,
    Twitter is only one place to have these social conversations, wouldn’t you agree? If Brand A has 16% conversations on Twitter, who’s to say that their level of engagement is not higher on Facebook, their corporate blog or even their YouTube channel?
    If only 16% of their total social media messaging is conversational, then I think there is a problem.

  21. It sounds like you found the winning formula. I’ve Blogged often about finding your “pulse” – the pulse of how you pump out content + the pulse of your audience/community. If you can nail that… sky’s the limit.

  22. I can’t speak to whether or not retweets were a part of this, but let’s push your comment further: a brand does the traditional broadcast thing, but gets tons of retweets and around those retweets are a lot of conversation. What then? Mission accomplished? (I’d like to think so).

  23. You’re right, there’s nothing saying that those conversations aren’t happening. This report was only about Twitter, and Twitter happens to be the bright, new and shiny object with lots and lots of people chatting publicly. Something tells me that if you take all of the brands that are having conversations in the other channels as well, the numbers would not change all that much. That’s a pessimistic statement, just a realistic/pragmatic one.

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