What it Takes to Build Relationships on Twitter

Some rights reserved by seanrnicholson, Flickr.com It’s what we’ve all heard: jump onto Twitter (or Facebook), start conversations with people in your field, readers, customers or shareholders, and our dreams of interactivity will come true. It’s all the hype – social media is the new frontier of building relationships with our “audiences”, whether we are organizations with a cause or scientists aiming for outreach.

But can organizations (or blogging communities like SciLogs, for example) really build relationships through social media? The question hasn’t seen as much research as one might think, according to Saffer, Sommerfeldt and Taylor (2013).

According to these researchers, Twitter theoretically “provides organizations the ability to engage… providing the kind of relationship-building communication that has been missing from websites.” But before Saffer, Sommerfeldt and Taylor conducted their 2013 study (published in Public Relations Review), previous research had little to say on whether higher levels of interactivity on Twitter actually result in better quality relationships between sender and recipient.

In a study and survey of university students (yes, that is a major limitation of the study), the researchers had students follow tweets from a high-interactivity account (Starbucks) or low-interactivity accounts (Gatorade or Target). Starbucks apparently tweets more replies than do Gatorade or Target. After two weeks, students were asked to fill out a questionnaire measuring various dimensions of a good organization-public relationship: trust, satisfaction, commitment, etc. Students’ previous attitudes toward Starbucks, Gatorade and/or Target were also factored into tests of interactivity impacts on the quality of the organization-public relationship.

The results? Drumroll please…

Indeed, students following the Starbucks account perceived the organization-public relationship(s) for that company to be of better quality than those of Gatorade or Target.

The authors conclude: “To communicate with frequent Twitter users, organizations should dedicate more time and resources to maintaining two-way communication via their social media.”

The problem is that research has found that a majority of organizations don’t invest significant time into two-way communication, i.e. replying and engaging with other Tweeters.

Of course, organizations, and individuals, should probably not blindly reply to “audience” Tweets and engage in two-way relationships without care. The nature of the Twitter audience, their social media habits, the nature of the replies, and many other factors could go into making or breaking the organization-public relationships. For example, could their also be potential negative impacts of high interactivity on Twitter?

What this study does reveal, however, is that people tweeting for a cause or a goal can’t be satisfied with simply disseminating information. The results are reminiscent of the abject failure of the deficit model of science communication. Tweeting about yourself and for yourself doesn't cut it – interacting, following others, giving back and replying in conversations is what it takes to promote relationships with your audiences.

The effects of organizational Twitter interactivity on organization–public relationships Public Relations Review, Volume 39, Issue 3, September 2013, Pages 213-215 Adam J. Saffer, Erich J. Sommerfeldt, Maureen Taylor