Teens Don’t Tweet: What it Means for Social Media Marketing

This week Neilson proved with numbers what many have suspected anecdotally: there are very few teens on Twitter. Furthermore, there are very few users who are still in college. Just 16% of Twitter users are under 25 years old, and just 10% of Tweetdeck users are under 25.

It’s fair to ask the obvious question: who cares? After all, we’ve also seen stats showing that the majority of Twitters users create an account and abandon it within one month, and yet Twitter’s growth continues seemingly unfettered. Besides, teens aren’t as lucrative a demographic as they used to be anyhow, right?

Wrong. Marketers should care, and they should pay attention.

Lesson 1: Twitter isn’t a place to Make Friends

Why aren’t teens and college kids on Twitter? Because it’s a place for people who want something from each other, and those things have very little to do with friendship.

Saying that Twitter isn’t a place for friends is not only controversial, it’s a huge and possibly irresponsible generalization. After all, Twitter is what you make it, and I’ve known more than a few people with private Twitter accounts who tweet nonstop to a select group of close contacts.

But that doesn’t mean the generalization isn’t true. With the exception of direct messaging, Twitter is a very public medium, making it hard for users to congregate into individual tribes and create micro-cultures, as friends tend to do both on and offline. Think about it. If Twitter was a place where friendships were forged and could prosper, teens and college-age adults would flock there in droves.

For marketers, this means that Twitter probably isn’t a good environment for referral-based sales. And after all, isn’t that supposed to be the power of social media? That users will be more willing to make purchases based on friends’ recommendations?

One of the downsides to Twitter is that there seems to be as much spam on the network as there is in email. This makes it very difficult to know who to trust. It would be interesting to know what percentage of active Twitter users are actually poseurs paid to tweet about products. If I had to take a wild guess, I would say that the number is at least 10%, if not much higher.

Conversely, Facebook is the best friend management tool in the history of the world, and it’s getting more powerful by the day. Recent changes on Facebook make it possible for users be a part of an infinite number of individually segmented tribes all at once, and at the user’s own discretion. This is why Facebook seems to appeal to users of all ages, and why we will likely continue to read about the continued success of its advertising programs.

So long as Facebook can claim to have the best friend management tool in the world, advertisers will continue to target it; it’s important to remember that this is the same position Google was in not so many years ago.

Lesson 2: Twitter is a Place to Be Seen, and See Others (and get discounts on great stuff)

If we know what Twitter isn’t, let’s call it what it really is. In its current form, many people are on Twitter either because they want to become gurus or celebrities, or because they want to have access to gurus and celebrities.

Evidence tells us that 75% of all Twitter updates are posted by a relatively small group—5%—of individuals. The fact that average Joes can listen to these power users and directly interact with them is in and of itself an amazing dynamic. But for the most part, reciprocal following is a courtesy. At its essence, Twitter really is a network of leaders and followers. Depending on whether you’re there for business or pleasure, Twitter can be a gigantic networking event in which everyone wants to shake hands with the hosts.

For marketers, this is what makes Twitter so great – if you’ve got something interesting to say or sell, you can gain a great following there like no other. But make no bones about it; these people are there because you’ve got something they want. This may not foster brand ambassadors or long-term customers; it may just simply foster customers who are looking for what they can get cheaply. Whether or not this is true will be told over time.

Twitter is also a great place to distribute coupons cheaply, as companies such as Dell have been doing this year. Staging Twitter-only specials is an extremely cheap and effective way to reach a huge audience and enjoy huge ROI. It may be that this, if nothing else, is the primary reason that people will continue to join Twitter and follow their favorite companies.

Stories like Dell’s make terrific business case studies. But they also seem to pose a problem for Twitter; they didn’t make a dime.


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