Twitter's future: Less tweets and more ads

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At 11:01 a.m. June 10, Heinz Field tweeted, "Look who is chairing the 25th Annual Gatorade/Steelers 5K Race! DETAILS on how to sign up:" It included a picture of Heath Miller and Ryan Clark (

Besides immediately reaching the 2,893 followers of Heinz Field on Twitter, by the next morning the post had been retweeted 27 times.

Twitter is quickly becoming a gold mine for businesses looking to improve their marketing. A new study co-authored by a University of Pittsburgh professor predicts that as the social media tool matures, more people will likely be consuming content on Twitter rather than producing it, making it a prime vehicle for advertising.

The reason people tweet was the subject of a study conducted by Andrew T. Stephen, an assistant professor of marketing at Pitt, and Olivier Toubia, the Glaubinger Professor of Business at Columbia University. Its results suggest that as people gain more followers, they tweet less.

Mr. Stephen and Mr. Toubia believe this means that Twitter users care more about the number of followers they have than about disseminating their beliefs. This, they claim, means as Twitter continues to grow, it may become less interactive and more of an advertising broadcast medium.

"The implication is that as people get more followers over time ... they're essentially going to be listening more," Mr. Stephen said. "They're probably paying attention to whatever accounts or users they're following."

In a world where more than 90 percent of the top 100 brands in the world have a Twitter account, this information may be crucial for businesses trying to get a leg up in the business world, Mr. Stephen added.

Besides using their Twitter accounts to advertise products, businesses are tapping celebrities to sneak name recognition into the Twittersphere. The New York Times recently reported that celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Ashton Kutcher are using social media to advertise businesses without disclosing their affiliation with the companies mentioned in their tweets.

The professors' study predicts that businesses will be able to capitalize on Twitter even more in the future. In the study the two identified approximately 2,500 Twitter users and gradually increased their followers by 100. For those who originally had only 13 to 26 followers, the uptick in followers also increased their Twitter activity. But those who originally had 62 to 245 followers actually tweeted less as their followers increased.

Mr. Stephen and Mr. Toubia theorize that the reason for decreased tweeting is that once Twitter users achieve a certain level of status, they are determined to preserve it. Mr. Stephen said he imagines that people, perhaps subconsciously, come to the conclusion, "I've got so many followers now, that's exciting, so I'm not going to risk it by posting something they don't like."

Some interviewed believe that the results of the study were consistent with their Twitter experience. Lauren Agnoli of Mt. Lebanon, a student at Mercyhurst College in Erie, said that she logs onto Twitter frequently, but she does not tweet very often herself.

However, others said that their personal experience does not match the conclusions in the study. Kenan Stewart, a student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, who tweets jokes, strange everyday occurrences or hometown festivals, said that the number of followers he has does not affect the amount he tweets.

Jessa Martonik of Peters, who also attends Mercyhurst, said that she tweets significantly more than when she first created a Twitter account. She said that because most of her friends now are on Twitter, tweeting is a more effective way to communicate than texting.

Nik Ker, owner of Ker Communications, an Internet marketing agency in Pittsburgh, said that although he has observed more businesses using Twitter to communicate with followers, many have yet to use it for pure advertising.

The Andy Warhol Museum embodies the interactive and advertising strategy that Mr. Ker outlined. Twitter is still used to reply to those who have tweeted the museum, and it is also a place where people check for information about hours and exhibits before visiting the museum, said Emily Meyer, Warhol spokeswoman.

Tim McLaughlin, one of the partners at 321 Blink, a Pittsburgh company that helps businesses gain visibility through social media, video and Web development, believes that Facebook is a more effective way for businesses to communicate with the public than Twitter. Businesses typically prefer Facebook over a tweet because messages can be longer (they're not limited to 140 characters). However, business occasionally find it useful to live tweet an event.

Though businesses do not seem to be tweeting more advertisements, there are signs that the medium is growing in popularity, particularly among a younger audience.

"We go around to some of the local high schools and we'll teach a couple classes on social media and literally, when we ask them about Facebook, they're like, 'It's dead to me,' " Mr. McLaughlin said. "Why? It's because their mom and dad are on it, so they don't want to be on it."

However companies choose to interpret the results of the study, Mr. Toubia hopes that it will be a building block toward understanding how Twitter can be effectively used by businesses.

"At the end of the day if we don't understand why [people tweet], then how can we understand [how to use Twitter]?" Mr. Toubia said.


Monica Disare: First Published June 23, 2013 4:00 AM


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