Should You Target Early Trend Propagators? Evidence from Twitter

Anja Lambrecht, Catherine Tucker, and Caroline Wiertz, 2014, 14-102

Marketers have often stressed the importance of targeting firm communications to consumers who embrace and propagate trends via social media. The question is, can firms persuade these trend-setters to embrace and propagate specific advertising messages?

To explore this question, Anja Lambrecht, Catherine Tucker, and Caroline Wiertz use data from the micro-blogging service Twitter. Two features make Twitter well-suited for their investigation: (1) each day Twitter identifies “trending topics,” which may arise organically or be firm sponsored and (2) Twitter allows firms to target “promoted tweets” to individuals whose recent posts contain key phrases of interest to the advertiser.

In the field test data, a U.K. charity targeted individuals who posted on a trending topic on the day it appeared and on three days following. These early and later trend propagators were then targeted by the charity with an advertising message (i.e., a promoted tweet). Lambrecht, Tucker, and Wiertz compared how often the early and later trend propagators clicked on and retweeted the promoted tweets.

Surprising, they found that early trend propagators--Twitter users who posted on the trend the day it emerged--were significantly less likely to respond positively to the promoted tweet than users who had posted on the trend during the following days.

One explanation is that early trend propagators want to make their own unguided choices and have little motivation to follow suggestions by others. This interpretation was supported when the researchers explored differences between early trend propagators who embraced organic and those who embraced firm-sponsored trending topics. They did not find a negative effect of targeting individuals who posted on sponsored trends, and consequently seem generally interested in firm-sponsored messages.

Further, Lambrecht, Tucker, and Wiertz found an interaction between targeting and message content: early trend propagators responded even more negatively when a message was framed to be relevant in the immediate (“today”) versus the long term. This suggests that consumers feared stronger manipulative intent on the part of the advertiser when advertising urged immediate action.

These results have important implications for firms.

First, although many guidelines for managing contagion speak of the advantages of encouraging early trend propagators to spread word-of-mouth, the study suggests that this might be harder to achieve via advertising than previously thought.

Second, the study suggests that early trend propagators who embrace a commercial trend respond differently to advertising messages than early trend propagators who embrace organic trends. Advertising to the former group is likely to be more successful, but may be less attractive from a firm's perspective, simply because such trend adopters are less likely to be seen by their peers as spreaders of organic trends.

Third, the results of this study have implications for the future of advertising on micro-blogging sites. It is tempting to think that what makes such sites distinctive from alternative advertising platforms is the fact that they originate trends and relay information that is very timely, but the study’s results suggest that these features are unlikely to distinguish them as useful advertising platforms.

Anja Lambrecht is Assistant Professor at the London Business School. Catherine Tucker is Associate Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Research Associate at NBER. Caroline Wiertz is a Reader in marketing at Cass Business School, City University London.

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Related links

Why Do People Contribute Content to Twitter? (2013) [Article]

Influence and Attention on Twitter
Duncan Watts (2013) [Video]


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