What Is Twitter? Apparently, No One Knows

You may feel like you can't escape Twitter, but many are doing just that: A new study shows that nearly 70% of adults don't know what Twitter is.

twitter-birdLately, Twitter seems like an inescapable part of life. People tweet from home, tweet when they're out, they even tweet when they're at work (it's safe to say the Fast Company office is Twitter-obsessed). But results from a recent LinkedIn Research Network/Harris Poll show that the Twitter phenomenon might be more concentrated than we thought.

Of the over 2,000 adults surveyed, 69% said they didn't know enough about Twitter to have an opinion on it—69%?! That's a shocking number—my mother even knows what Twitter is, and I still have to place a weekly call just to remind her to check her e-mail. An additional 20% of consumers think that Twitter is either already past its prime or will continue to be used only by young people and the media. When you add up those numbers, that leaves a pretty small portion of consumers who think Twitter will continue to grow.

It's not ground-breaking news that questions are being raised about Twitter's staying power. It has a retention rate of just 40% (about half the rate of Facebook and MySpace) and most of its 7 million users simply follow friends, not companies or brands. But not knowing what Twitter is? Numbers like that don't bode well for advertisers, especially when their awareness of the micro-blogging site seems to be vastly different from consumers'.

The study also surveyed over 1,000 advertisers, of which 45% felt that Twitter will continue to grow. Only 17% said they didn't know enough about Twitter to comment (which still seems high for the ad industry, but it pales in comparison to 69%), another 17% said Twitter is already over and 21% said it will continue to be used solely by young people and the media.

So the ad industry has more confidence in Twitter than consumers do, but no one seems to be overwhelmed by its potential marketing ability. When asked about the effectiveness of tweets, only 8% of advertisers and consumers alike believe it is "very effective." (This was demonstrated last week at Comic-Con, when convention-related tweets fell way short of expectations.)

Twitter has said before that the site is not interested in pursuing advertising, but hopes to bring in cash with tools and services. But if the site continues to attract only youth and media, as some have predicted, will it be enough to sustain the Twittersphere?

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  • Andrew Eriksen

    Some of my clients are beginning to see the value of twitter. My fear is that it will become a place full of spam as that is most of what I see when viewing tweets. I was also thinking today if they are going to somehow limit the ability of people setting up dummy accounts just to acquire unique and potentially valuable twitter ids.

    One of my clients has found twitter to be more successful than the traditional e newsletter in broadcasting their latest news and events. They also, at our direction, used are doing a free giveaway for all of their twitter followers. They just opened their account and already have 50 legitimate followers. It is advertised on their Health Source Magazine home page.

    I think people will find many ways to utilize twitter just as we have with youtube and facebook. I believe that it is nearly impossible to be successful without understanding the importance of social media. I was sitting next to someone today in a coffee shop and overheard him tell someone getting ready to take college classes to check out "rate my professor". The professors who do not participate or who are not aware of what their students are saying will inevitably see their class size start to dwindle.

    This is just the way it is now, you have to know or it will hurt you.

  • Get Taller

    LOL great question and even better article. It seems its the most popular fad in the world but no one seems to know what it is. What a funny old world we live in. Or should I say strange old world. Scott from the how to get taller hub.

  • Bob Finch

    Since 90% of Twitter's power is in "active listening," how does Nielsen hang it's hat on ANY numbers? I speak with folks every day about Twitter (actually, my focus is on the leveraging capacity of using Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter together for business/career marketing}. Yes, the vast majority is still clueless,and a substantial portion of folks in my target demographic (35-55, mid-career) who have social media accounts have no idea about how to make any part of these platforms really work for them.

    Once I explain the "listening" part of it - how to find and follow people who share their passions and careers or engage in conversations with their stakeholders and prospects - they invariably have the "lights" turned on. Then I tell them about the importance of altruism, of giving their expertise away to those who need help, because it will be returned to them in a much greater fashion; I usually get people excited. All it takes is TweetDeck, an iPhone and five minutes.

    We're still in the early adopter phase of this; lot's of people on Twitter haven't actually "adopted it." Many are wallflowers watching the dance. This will change. I think naysayer-themed articles like this only make those ignorant to social media's value and power feel justified and content in knowing what they don't know, while missing opportunities. From what I can ascertain, the author has a negligible - or zero - social media footprint and little if any "real world" experience in marketing, PR or social media.

    How can she write with any authority?

  • Emeri Gent [Em]

    Any online application can become whatever one wants it to be. Social Media is like China.

    In the heartland city of social media everybody knows what it is, but as one travels further out in concentric rings of attention, their greater mass called "Mother Earth" would see the city of social media no differently to the way a city is viewed from space.

    There was a time when likeminded people talked about digital have's and digital have nots, but that conversation has been consumed by an all out infatuation with connecting to systems. When statistics reveal the truth that many people don't even know what blogs are, that is not a strange reality, that is the reality of a new world of mass attention and an old world of the masses.

    What we need to focus on is how people use new media intelligently. There is plenty of evidence of that and then it is a question of how to build the bridges of intelligent net worth into the wider world, rather than turn an industrial machine civilization into techno machine civilization.

    e.g., Alan Watts Noise to Socializing Signal Ratio

  • Freddy Nager

    Great questions. One statistic I'd like to see is what % of current Twitter users are spammers or part-time spammers hyping MLM's and work-from-home scams. A recent purge of spammers from Twitter resulted in some people losing most of their "followers." Massive ego deflation ensued.

    Also, that dropout rate of is pretty significant -- imagine if 60% of email users had stopped emailing?

    As I noted in "Untweetable" (http://coolrulespronto.wordpre..., Twitter could simply be just another overhyped Next Big Thing, like virtual worlds and chat rooms. For the time being, it's just another color in the crayon box -- just because it exists and someone else likes it, doesn't mean you have to use it.