To tweet or not to tweet

Rob Walton

Wisper Public Affairs

The Twitter CEO, Dick Costello, announced in September that his social networking site had signed up a whopping 100 million active global users. With over 33 million unique visits paid by users during the month, Twitter is placed 3rd behind Facebook and YouTube on the league table of the world’s most popular websites.

With this many users, it is easy to imagine that businesses at the cutting edge of technology, like those in the pharmaceutical sector, would have figured out how to take advantage of the platform and the potential it presumably offers to those trying to get their message across. In reality this has not occurred and it is only in the last year or so that pharmaceutical marketing professionals have begun to seriously consider the inclusion of Twitter as part of the marketing and communications mix.

In my view, the reasons why the industry has been slow to adopt Twitter are simple and few. The relationship between investment and output remain unclear and this uncertainty is exacerbated by a mix of increasingly constricted promotional budgets, concerns around communicating to the public and a continued lack of understanding of Twitter’s users.

“The relationship between investment and output remain unclear…”

Twitter is referred to as a “micro-blogging” site, because users must “tweet” their communications in no-more than 140 characters to their “followers”. Anyone who is registered with Twitter can read another user’s tweets, but to really get the most from tweeting it’s crucial to follow and be followed by others.

In the five years since Twitter was set up it has become synonymous with the concept of virtual social networking. Last year, The Times reported on leaked documents from the site’s San Francisco headquarters which stated it aspired to become the “pulse of the planet”. By July of this year, these ambitions seemed a step closer to realisation when it hosted more visitors that month (32.8 million) than LinkedIn (32.5 million). Twitter was also widely being credited by the global media as having a direct effect on democracy through its role in galvanising protest during the Arab Spring.

But we should put these facts and figures into context. It’s fine to be second or even third in the league table, but it’s even better if being first is within reach. If you really want to take the pulse of the planet, then take a look at Facebook, which outshone both Twitter and LinkedIn last month with a mind-blowing 162 million hits.

Back in April the company said it had attracted 175 million registrations, and just last month Dick Costello reported 100 million active Twitter users . This sounds impressive, but what do these figures really mean?

According to statistics leaked by company insiders to media, before the summer there were 119 million Twitter accounts following one or more other users and there were 85 million accounts with one or more followers. Simple arithmetic can therefore show that, before the summer, there were around 56 million accounts holders who didn’t follow anyone at all and 90 million Twitter accounts remaining un-followed by other users. The leak also reported that only about half of Twitter users followed two or more people.

“Getting your message out in the virtual space does not guarantee its transmission to the target audience.”

Adding further complexity, collaborating researchers at Cornell University and Yahoo published a study this year on “Who says what to whom” on Twitter. The results are informative. First the researchers concluded that most of the activity generated on Twitter comes from a small “elite” of super-users. Indeed almost 50% of all tweets are generated by a mere 20,000 users. Second, Twitter is cliquish, within the population of elite users, celebrities congregate with other celebrities, bloggers with bloggers and so forth, which primarily serves to undermine the democratising essence of the social network. Third, almost half of the information accessed by users derives from traditional media sources simply repackaged through links by tweeting interlocutors. Finally, the lifespan of content tweeted on the site varies according to its nature, with music and video packages unceasingly rediscovered and re-tweeted and news items disappearing quickly into the ether.

In the current economic climate, it is no surprise that pharmaceutical marketers are being cautious in their adoption of Twitter. Overall, industry spend on promotion and advertising has tailed off in the United States and Europe. Last year the United States Congressional Budget Office reported that the growth of pharmaceutical manufacturers’ overall promotional spending had slowed from double-digits in 2003 and 2004 to almost zero in 2009. This was due to fewer new treatments being approved by regulators, an increase in patent expiry and increased macro-economic pressures on governments. Such pressures will inevitably lead to pharmaceutical marketing professionals to make very careful choices about their mix of investments. Those channels which are proven to be most effective will continue to flourish and the adoption of emerging communication channels will be faltering.

Though Twitter is free at the point of use, the limited evidence available indicates that the most frequently verbose users generate by far the most on-line activity. The lesson here is that results take time and effort and, quite simply, without an intensive investment of these factors, returns will be marginal at best.

Those considering investing in Twitter should also take the time to develop a clear picture of what they perceive Twitter will deliver for them. In this respect it is important not to confuse activity with delivery. Getting your message out in the virtual space does not guarantee its transmission to the target audience. More importantly, even if it does secure the right message at the right time, it doesn’t mean that behavioural change will follow. Finally, gaining a sense of how to accurately measure success is a critical challenge. While leading a “Trending” on Twitter might give executives a warm and fuzzy feeling, it may deliver nothing beyond a smile and a line in the monthly management report.

Emergent technologies like Twitter are increasingly important in our globalised world, but times are tough. The burden of evidence rests with Twitter to demonstrate the effectiveness of the site as a tool of global business communication. Increasing transparency on how this tool is being used, and by whom, will help to expedite uptake by the pharmaceutical sector, but until that time, quite rightly, the jury is out.

About the author:

Rob Walton is Managing Partner at Wisper Public Affairs, a member of the iS Health Group of companies.

Why do you think pharma is slow to adopt Twitter?