Let's Be Honest About Twitter: It Doesn't Represent the Real World

Those Who Tweet Make a Loud Noise, but Not Every Brand Should Be Listening

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Let me first say that I am a huge fan of Twitter. I'm borderline-obsessed with it. Though I hide behind a company account (that's @CivicScience -- please follow!), I write 90% of our posts myself. Twitter is the first place I go for breaking news, to hear people rant about the Steelers and to keep up with my favorite writers and peers. I love it.

But I am in a minority. Twitter is an echo chamber for people like me -- people shamefully addicted to their digital devices, terrified of missing the latest Edward Snowden bombshell or self-absorbed enough to think that people care what we have to share.

Recent data from the Pew Foundation show that 18% of American adults are on Twitter (our internal data say 20%). The group of active and engaged users is probably much smaller than that. Pew says that 32% of Twitter users visit less than once a week.

Yet the media and business intelligentsia (most of whom are inside the echo chamber) would lead you to believe that Twitter is far more ubiquitous. Every consumer brand worth knowing has set up a Twitter account and assigned a social-media director to keep tabs on it. Advertisers are shifting dollars there. Market-research companies are even attempting to use Twitter to measure trends in TV or music. Nobody is trying to talk them out of it. But should they?

The next time you see a copy of the USA Today, open it to the Lifestyle section. Then look at the Top 20 TV shows ranked by recent ratings. Just below that, you'll see the list of Most Tweeted About shows. You won't find many, if any, shows on both lists. Why? Because the most vocal people on Twitter are not representative of the real world. Not even close.

For some brands, Twitter offers valuable opportunities. Its users are engaged, informed and attractive prospects for particular types of brands and products. But how many companies are wasting energy by targeting a bunch of people who really don't align with their brand?

A cautionary example of misalignment between Twitter and certain brands was showcased during the Phil Robertson/Duck Dynasty fiasco last December. When Robertson's controversial comments about race and homosexuality hit the news, A&E quickly suspended the actor, and Cracker Barrel yanked its sponsorship. Based on the companies' knee-jerk responses, they must have seen some pretty alarming levels of outrage on Twitter. Only days later, however, after a deluge of angry calls, petitions, e-mails and social-media backlash, Cracker Barrel reversed its decision.

The company likely fell into an all-too-dangerous trap: It mistook the sentiment of social media's most vocal users as reflective of broad-based public opinion, which it isn't. It's even less reflective of the opinions of those who watch Duck Dynasty and eat at Cracker Barrel.

Before you fall into a similar trap, consider this: The 18% of U.S. adults on Twitter are skewed in their demographic, socio-economic and ideological make-up relative to the general population. We recently analyzed how (and how much) Twitter users differ from the average person. This report analysis (the entirety of which can be viewed here), sheds light on the kinds of brands and media that best align with the Twitter user base.

We uncovered, for example, that Twitter users are slightly more likely than non-users to be female and twice as likely as non-users to be under age 35. Twitter users are 20% more likely than non-users to live in a city and 28% less likely to live in a rural area. Twitter users are 16% more likely to be Hispanic and 10% more likely to be black than non-users, and 54% of Twitter users have no children or grandchildren, compared to 34% of non-users; 45% of Twitter users own a home, compared to 64% of non-users. And 40% of Twitter users describe themselves as early adopters, compared to just 23% of non-users.

The group of Twitter users that are most relevant to a given brand or media property is a fraction of the Twitter population at large. Different groups of people use it for different reasons. A large number follow topics about TV shows and brands; but others follow only fashion, sports, fitness or myriad other topics.

We found that 57% of Twitter users closely follow trends in music, compared to only 30% of non-users. Twitter users are more likely to closely follow every major U.S. sports league. Twitter users are more likely to prefer ABC and NBC programming, while non-users are more likely to prefer CBS or Fox. Twitter users are 23% more likely than non-users to choose "cooking" as their favorite household chore; Non-users are 29% more likely to choose "yard work."

People with divergent opinions within the social media echo chamber will often mute those opinions for fear of scrutiny or retribution. Research we published two years ago found that 43% of U.S. adults are unlikely to share opinions on social media that they know to be unpopular; we tend to share things that improve our image or standing within our social circles. In the case of Duck Dynasty, while there may have been a sizable group of users who weren't offended by Robertson's comments, or even supported them, many of these people were unlikely to broadcast their opinions amidst a groundswell of sentiment to the contrary.

Clearly the Twitter audience is more relevant to some brands than others. The following charts show a small list of brands, among the thousand-plus we track, whose popularity among Twitter users varies most from the preferences of the general U.S. adult population.

Figure 1: Select Brands with High Popularity Gain among Twitter Users

Twitter users have a more favorable view of brands like Apple and Amazon that are geared toward the more tech savvy; healthy brands like Whole Foods, Snapple, and Lean Cuisine, and sports apparel brands like Nike This all suggests that Twitter is a breeding ground of fashion-forward, affluent and image-conscious consumers.

Figure 2: Select Brands with High Popularity Drop among Twitter Users

In the second chart, we see that a much different type of brand appeals to non-Twitter users. Comfort brands like Hanes and Carhartt under-index in popularity among Twitter users, as do casual dining establishments like Olive Garden and Applebee's. The difference in Buick's like-ability among the groups owes largely to age skews prevalent among Twitter users.

And what did we find out about Duck Dynasty and Cracker Barrel? Well:

Looking at these figures, it's no wonder that the social-media backlash and "offline" backlash following Robertson's comments painted two different pictures. If you don't consider the varying ideological points of view between Twitter users and the rest of the population, you risk misinterpreting and overreacting to what you hear.

John Dick is founder and CEO of CivicScience Inc., a polling and data mining company based in Pittsburgh.

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