the twitter effect

Mar 12, 2013 No Comments by


Do You Tweet?

If so, you are in the distinct minority of Americans.

Are you a liberal or a conservative?

Are you young, old or middle-aged?

It turns out your answer to the second and third questions may influence your answer to the first one…

031213 theBigRocks Twitter Effect Banner

To Tweet or Not to Tweet? Some good lessons for Change Agents can be found within a recent Pew Research Center article showing how the reaction of people in the Twitter community to events of the world is often at odds with overall public opinion.

We might chalk up this difference to the skewed demographics of the Twitter community and the instant reactive nature of Social Media.

Pollsters might say that Twitter uses a very “unscientific sample”.

data-innovationConsider these numbers, according to Pew:

–  Only 13% of American adults have ever read a tweet.

–  Only 3% have ever posted a tweet.

–  Those who post items on Twitter tend to be younger than the overall population: (50% of posters are younger than 30, compared to only 23% of the actual population).

–  Many critics suggest that “the Twitterverse” is far more liberal than the general population. (I’m not sure if a definitive study has been done on this, but 57% of US Twitter users in the Pew study identified themselves as Democrats compared to 46% of the population.)

twitterverse-coverageThe study suggests however, that even while Twitter samples may be skewed, they may still offer value based on their quick-turn nature – as long as they are not treated as balanced data samples.

News Flash: “Flash News Is Often More Flash Than News”: You may have noticed that many news organizations have started to include Twitter opinion trends as a part of their regular reporting process. However, broad, fast-developing trends within the Twitter community don’t necessarily tell the whole story of public opinion. Often the plugged-in crowd moves very quickly to take “majority” positions based on whoever happens to be online at the time that an event occurs. (Time zones actually play into this as well…)


Read more about the Pew Twitter study by clicking the logo above.

Also, even if the avalanche of early reaction goes in a given direction, one should not assume that all Twitter users are a part of the instant majority. There will still be detractors to every belief and opposition forces under the surface of every trend.

For example, not everything you read on Twitter comes with a liberal bias nor is it all oriented toward the sub-30 crowd. Sometimes it takes a while for these opposition forces to catch up.

What does this mean for Change Agents?

Be Careful What You Treat as “Facts”: Pew points out that the Twitter reaction to a given news event might not occur in proportion to its real-world impact and that the millisecond reaction may vary from the collective real-world opinion that solidifies over time. The same things can happen when we try to measure the level of adoption and resistance within our stakeholder communities.

Five Points for Change Agents: The Pew article isn’t about change adoption per se, but we can draw a few useful nuggets from the study.

usa-today-twitter-election-meter1. The Accuracy of Overall Trends Can Depend Upon the Sample: Change Agents should double-check their sample to make sure they are getting the full range of inputs before drawing broad conclusions. For example, don’t assume the overall trend is positive if the data in your sample may be skewed toward a few locations or roles. 

Likewise, don’t assume the sky is falling because a few loud voices are convinced this is the case.

One of my favorite client stories in this regard involves a Change Sponsor who assumed that everyone was on board with his change because the online survey results indicated that folks heavily supported it. The only problem: a number of stakeholders were not part of the sample because they didn’t have access to the online survey. Some didn’t even have Internet access to read the email invitation!

When we visited the field, we found that the majority of people in a few locations had not even heard that the change was coming. In this case, the overall sample didn’t include some important data so the overall trends were not accurate.

2. Outliers Matter: Be aware that the general trends in your readiness data may not apply to every corner of your stakeholder community. Pockets of people may have a very good reason to oppose a given change from their unique frame of reference.outliers

Watch for micro-trends and be sure to respond in a tailored way rather than assuming the same shoe fits everyone just because it fits many or most. One rule of thumb that I have used before is:

“If they can think it, they can sink it.”

In other words, if a person or a group of people can coalesce a clear opinion with regard to your change, Change Agents should probably assume that impacted people could act on that opinion. This is true whether the opinion is favorable or resistant with respect to the change. Leverage the support or address the gaps accordingly.

3. Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself: Just as one should take the initial Twitter reaction to global events with a grain of salt, so should Change Agents be patient as they collect information about change adoption.

Don’t overreact to the initial poll numbers or the loudest early reactions. There will be individuals offering strong expressions of support and/or resistance. Some such voices can drown out quieter groups of stakeholders. Take all inputs as just that: input. 

LOUDMOUTHSUnplug the emotional component as much as you can. Remember that those who hold the strongest opinions are more likely to take advantage of the opportunity to express them! (Tweeters will Tweet, right?)

4. Be Methodical: The rules of real data are still basically true. I’d advise you to avoid over-relying on the approach taken by the tragically up-and-down, freaked-out, 24/7 reality show drama that is Social Media. Let it play out as one source of information. Apply old-fashioned diligence when you consider the needs of the stakeholders involved in your change.

Don’t get me wrong, these tools still have value as communication/input/listening channels. Just be careful how you read the results you get back.  Go ahead and tweet your change. Share it on Facebook if that works for you. Collect data through Social Media tools too, just treat it as input data, not finished fact. The very things that make it great could also introduce serious flaws.

keep calm and tweet on5. Stay OpenMinded: Finally, listen to the range of ideas regarding your change regardless of the source. Don’t toss out potentially helpful suggestions just because they come from new angles. Honestly consider adjustments to your approach on their merits. Don’t brush them aside just because they clash with your initial plan. 

Don’t ignore social media inputs just because you’re among the 93% that doesn’t tweet. Your change approach can often benefit from unsolicited, even reactive adjustments.

Summary: The Pew Research Institute study of Twitter trends offers some insight into the limits and benefits of listening to Social Media. Change Agents should consider leveraging the potential to reach their stakeholders very quickly for feedback using these tools, but be careful not to over-react or read too much into the loudest and fastest reactions to change.

Get a true representative sample of stakeholder opinion before drawing broad conclusions and dig deeper into pockets of opinion to make sure you account for true stakeholder needs when dealing with change adoption.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. Do you recognize the loudest voices in your organization? Do you allow them to get an over-sized amount of attention?
  2. Do you have a clear strategy to reach the “forgotten corners” of your stakeholder map?
  3. How do you employ “quick-turn” feedback tools like Twitter when rolling out change?

Incoming search terms:

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Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

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