If a Tweet Falls in the Forest, Does It Make a Sound?

Last Updated May 18, 2011 8:00 AM EDT

Twitter is largely a waste of time for the average small business -- with just a few exceptions.
First some background. If a fair evaluation requires objectivity, I'm the perfect person to evaluate the effectiveness of Twitter for small businesses. I don't have a Twitter account (or a Facebook account), I don't check out tweets or Facebook pages -- I'm the ultimate arm's length evaluator. (And clearly a dinosaur as well.)

But I do have second-hand experience with Twitter, mainly from this BNET blog. People often tweet my posts, sometimes hundreds of times. A small percentage of those tweets came from people with tens of thousands of followers. You would think a tweet that reaches, say, 50k people or more would generate a lot of incoming traffic, right?

Nope.

For example, one article was tweeted by a person with 57k followers; less than 700 people followed the link to read the article. That's a 1.2% ROT (Return On Tweet, a metric I just made up.)

And that is the best result I've noticed. Other posts tweeted by individuals with well over 100k followers resulted in less than 100 Twitter referrals.

That's why I think the vast majority of tweets fall in the forest without making a sound.

I recognize there are exceptions, but spending more than a few minutes a day on social media marketing is a waste of time for the average small business, except for certain limited uses:
  • Social media helps SEO. Google factors links from Twitter and other social media into its algorithms. Twitter and Facebook links can help improve your website ranking.
  • Social media is a lot more personal than a website. Some customers want to connect more directly with you, and Twitter is great for making direct connections. Engage the people who want to be engaged; just don't spend all day chasing engagement.
  • Some tweets can drive business. Most followers are unlikely to appreciate being inundated with special offers and announcements, but an occasional promotion -- as long as it has a reasonable payoff for the customer -- might be welcomed. The more direct the benefit the better, though: Announcing a "30% off, store-wide, end-of-season snowboard equipment sale" will drive results a lot better than a general "Come check out our great deals!" tweet.
  • You can spark or shape some conversations. People are probably already talking about your business, so don't get left out. Monitor your online reputation, step in to contribute when necessary, and in general use Twitter and other social media to share positives and respond to criticism. Don't be afraid to blow your own horn -- within reason, of course.
The key is to ensure the return you receive from social media marketing matches your investment in time and resources.

If in doubt about your ROT, stick to the basics, put in a little effort to accomplish what's listed above, and spend the bulk of your time focused on other marketing and advertising strategies. While some of your biggest are more likely to engage with you on Twitter and other social media, and some of your best customers are more likely to make a purchase due to social media, the majority you will still have to reach the good old fashioned way.

But if you disagree, feel free to prove me wrong -- unlike most of your Twitter followers, I'm listening!

UPDATE: A number of readers emailed asking for examples. Here are two:
  • I wrote about Johann Bruyneel's approach to managing a team that included a superstar (Lance Armstrong) and Johann tweeted a link to the article to his (then) 50k-plus followers. Less than 1% of them followed the link.
  • I wrote about professional cyclist Ted King's approach to social media, he tweeted a link to the article, and thousands of his then 9.5k followers checked out the article.
As a commenter has noted, in a direct-response marketing world Johann's ROT is low but acceptable. Ted's audience is highly engaged. In my experience Ted is definitely the Twitter exception rather than the rule.

Read More: Photo by flickr user Asthma Helper, CC 2.0
  • Jeff Haden On Twitter»

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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.

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