Does Twitter tell you what to buy?

A fresh new study about how consumers use Twitter to talk about brands is being published in an upcoming issue of "The Journal of American Society for Information Science and Technology," shedding some light on how many people are Tweeting about brands and what they're saying.

The study done at Penn State by Jim Jansen, Mimi Zhang, Kate Sobel and Twitter chief scientist Abdur Chowdhury shows that of the half a million Tweets analyzed in a 13-week period, 19% talked about a brand of some manner and of these brand mentioning tweets 1 in 5 tweets contained an expression of brand sentiment.

The research noted that, "although the positive tweets represented the largest quantity, there were a substantial percentage of negative tweets. Prior research in the impression formulation literature has shown that negative comments have a greater impact than positive ones." This re-enforces the popular anecdote that an angry customer has a greater affect on a company than a positive one.

From the study of Tweets the researchers were able to determine that, "these microblogs offer immediate sentiment and provide insight in affective reactions toward products at critical junctions of the decision-making and purchasing process."

Talking about brands is incredibly common on Twitter and there are several Twitter accounts whose sole purpose is to answer consumer questions. One example is @RetrevoQ which allows consumers to ask about a specific product and get buy recommendation and price range tweeted back to them. For example, asking about a Nikon D60 will get the response, "Nikon D60 : Strong Buy if you want older high end, $395.00-$496.95".

The motivations behind consumer tweets could be to vent frustration or to share in the elation of a good purchase but no matter the sentiment involved it's obvious that consumers are using Twitter to find information and to share their opinions about companies and products.

Twitter user @joeziemer recently tweeted about his experience waiting more than 80 minutes for a Qdoba order, "solely based on personal frustration." After venting his frustration Qdoba replied and offered him a free meal to make up for the problem.

Another common use of Twitter to talk about brands or products is to ask others for their opinion. Murray Chapple, @WhirlyPig on Twitter, recently asked others what they thought about the iPhone before he made a purchase since he is a "firm believer in word-of-mouth over 'professional' reviews'" and "the freedom of words as expressed in tweets." Though based on his experience Twitter may still need to grow before consumers can easily solicit the opinions of the masses since Chapple received only a few answers from people he already knew.

More examples can easily be found by searching for a brand name using Twitter Search and filtering by emotion or for tweets asking a question.

Feelings, nothing more than feelings:
When it comes to feelings about a particular brand there's no telling how consumer opinion will sway from one week to the next. During the study 64% of the tweets expressing sentiment changed from positive to negative, negative to positive or disappeared completely from tweets from one week to the next. That's almost two-thirds of Twitter opinion changing in the span of seven days.

During the study the researchers looked at 50 brands that were "closely related with items in daily life." While the study doesn't go so far as to say which brands consumers are positive or negative about it does show where there is a difference in consumer feelings about specific products aired on Twitter. One of the examples of a significant difference between products was between Windows 7 and Windows Vista. Even thought the study doesn't tell us which product consumers prefer, this tweet by Maya Peart, @devCamui, should clear up the sentiment felt by consumers regarding Windows 7 and Windows Vista.

It's Bruno:
If you have any question about the impact that Twitter can have on a consumer's decision making process you don't have to look any further than your local movie theater. Earlier this year the movie Bruno had a terrible opening weekend, which was blamed on the fact that opinions about the movie had flooded Twitter with such speed that consumers could make a decision after just one or two shows, much faster than with other communication models.

If Tweeted opinions about a brand can so heavily influence a $10 movie ticket; how much influence do you think the opinion of a Twitter friend has on larger purchases?

So, does Twitter tell you what to buy? It's not going to hand you a shopping list of preferred brands but the power of our peers to influence our feelings about products ranging from categories like computers to toothpaste and fast food is clear. Thanks to Twitter this power now has far greater reach ignoring geographic location and providing users with more influence in 140 characters than was previously thought possible.

Research Jim Jansen concludes that tweets have an impressive ability to reach consumers, he's quoted as saying, "Tweets are about as close as one can get to the customer point of purchase for products and services."

Never before have consumers had access to so many opinions at all stages of the buying and decision making process than today and the actions that companies take both in the marketplace and on social networks will prove to be an incredibly important factor in purchases for the foreseeable future.

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