What Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter means for marketers

Elon Musk made a take-over offer to buy Twitter, and is said to want to implement four key changes at the social media company:

  1. Reduce content moderation
  2. Eliminate automated accounts
  3. Introduce new product features
  4. Open-up Twitter’s algorithm

The significance of Twitter for marketers

According to Hootsuite, Twitter is the 15th largest social media platform in the world (slide 99). While only 0.2% of users are exclusive to the platform (vs. 0.7% for Facebook, 0.9% for YouTube and 1.5% for WhatsApp, as per slide 102), and they only spend around 6 minutes per day on the platform, this is the platform that people go to for breaking news, joining the discussion around trending topics, and interact with people that they do not know personally but with whom they share an interest or that they admire.

Twitter is also a significant platform for marketing professionals. First, because its open nature makes it a suitable platform for market research into consumer opinion and market trends. Second, because it is a relatively cost-effective platform to advertise on (naturally, this will be true for some markets more than others): a quarter of users indicate that they spend more time looking at adverts on Twitter than on other social media platforms, and it has one of the lowest CPM among the leading platforms

Thus, Twitter’s take-over by Musk, and the proposed changes, are far from inconsequential for marketing professionals. In my view, these are the most likely effects, for marketers, of the changes proposed by Musk (assuming that he can implement them):

Proposed changeFunction: Customer and market insightFunction: Customer serviceFunction: BrandingFunction: Customer acquisition
1. Reduce content moderationNegativeNegativeNegativeNegative
2. Eliminate automated accountsPositiven/aPositiven/a
3. Introduce new product featuresPositive (edit button)Positive (edit button)UnclearNegative (subscription)
4. Open-up Twitter’s algorithm????

Here is my rationale.

  1. Reduce content moderation

Musk has said, previously, that Twitter is the de facto town square* of the digital world and, thus, should allow for free speech. That statement suggests that Musk will reduce content moderation and, consequently, allow for more extreme views (conspiracy theories, hate speech, misinformation…) to be aired. That is bad for marketers in two ways.

First, it pushes away the users targeted by hate speech (women, ethnic minorities, etc…). At a time when more and more brands are realising the value of engaging with societal issues, and of speaking to a diverse and inclusive marketplace, the loss of those users would further reduce the diversity of Twitter’s user base and, thus, its value as a source of insight for marketers, and as a customer support channel.

Second, it is bad for brands when their adverts are displayed next to extremist content. It creates associations, in the mind of customers, between the brand and that type of message, and could suggest that the brand endorses that type of message. Several big advertising spenders recently pulled their adverts from YouTube exactly because of that.

2. Eliminate automated accounts

Twitter has long had a problem with the prevalence of automated accounts, which are run by bots (i.e., software programmes, rather than individual people).

Some bots are programmed to retweet content from specific user accounts and/or topics. For instance, Pew Research estimates that as much as 2/3 of links shared on Twitter are posted by automated accounts, not individual users. This means that the conversation around specific topics and hashtags, on Twitter, does not accurately reflect the opinion of individual users – neither in terms of relative popularity of the topic, nor in terms of the content of the message. Thus, if Musk were to successfully tackle the prevalence of automated accounts on Twitter, the platform would become more reliable as a source of customer voice and market insight. 

The content posted by bots is also more likely to be negative in sentiment, and more likely to go viral, than that posted by humans. This means that bots can give marketers a misleading view of customer sentiment. Moreover, bots can create or amplify brand-related misinformation, which can negatively impact on customers’ perception of that brand and, thus, its financial performance. This is another reason why tackling the prevalence of automated accounts on Twitter would be good for marketers.

Some bots are also created with the purpose of inflating the number of followers of a Twitter user, or the views for their posts. Some users buy Twitter followers to improve their perceived standing on the platform. By some estimates, up to half of the followers of high-profile Twitter users are fake! This means that consumers, as well as firms, may be misled regarding the popularity of certain users, or of the content that they post, and make flawed decisions based on that (e.g., partnership deals). Tackling automated accounts would help with this, too. Here is an insight into how click farms work:

3. Introduce new product features

It is expected that Musk will fast track product development and will improve the user experience. Twitter’s user interface has long been a source of complaints, and if there is one thing that Musk is good at is thinking outside of the box and trying new things.

One much talked about feature is the introduction of the edit button, though others may follow, such as subscription-based access, or the creation of personal Twitter spaces. Improvements to the user interface could be good in terms of attracting additional users, as well as in terms of encouraging them to spend more time on the platform. As discussed above, brands are realising the value of speaking to a diverse and inclusive marketplace. Thus, the increase in the number and diversity of engaged users on Twitter would be beneficial for marketers – both in terms of Twitter as a source of insight, and as a channel to interact with customers.

On the other hand, the introduction of subscription services and other product features that give users more control over their experience on Twitter would reduce their exposure to advertising. This is bad news for Twitter given that, as discussed above, this is a relatively cost-effective channel for online advertising. Though, it could improve engagement with those Twitter users that do choose to follow the brand.

4. Open-up Twitter’s algorithm

Musk has previously said that Twitter users should be able to see whether messages on their timeline had been promoted or demoted by the algorithm. He has also defended that the code underpinning Twitter’s algorithm should be open-source, so that others could suggest improvements.

How do you think this proposal, if implemented, would impact on marketers?

*In town squares there is no anonymity. Plus, there are social norms that regulate what can be said, and there are negative consequences for those that violate those norms. Thus, the comparison doesn’t really hold.

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