Derek Thompson of The Atlantic stirred up some controversy among digital marketers with his recent piece “The Unbearable Lightness of Tweeting.” Thompson describes the piece as a “personal investigation” into the value of Twitter for driving web traffic. As I read this post, I began to wonder if any real-life digital marketers were consulted during this “investigation.”

Thompson’s unscientific experiment with Twitter opens with him admitting that he has deleted and reinstalled Twitter from his phone on various occasions because he felt it was affecting his productivity. He then goes on to explain how he discovered Twitter analytics, a feature that most digital marketers have been familiar with for quite some time. In order to “test out” the ROI of Twitter, Thompson tweets about a recent article he published with a photo and a link to The Atlantic’s website.

His conclusion? Twitter is “worthless” for driving traffic to your website because of the low amount of click-throughs he received on this one post.

As someone who has helped hundreds of businesses grow their Twitter presence and develop strategies to drive measurable ROI, this is the type of article that makes me cringe. Why? Because I will walk into a strategy meeting with a CEO who read an article about how Twitter was worthless for driving web traffic and I will have to spend the better portion of that time convincing them otherwise. Because experienced marketers know that Twitter is an incredibly valuable tool for driving traffic and conversations. Perhaps most importantly, Twitter drives real conversions.

Here are three reasons that The Atlantic’s investigation should be debunked:

1) The analytics from a single Tweet are not sufficient to determine whether Twitter is effective in driving web traffic

The author based his findings on the insights from one tweet from his personal account.  One tweet does not make a campaign. There are so many factors that can affect engagement such as the time of day a post is shared, half-life in the newsfeed, Tweet structure, copy, and whether or not the post includes an image. At Solomon McCown, we manage a high volume of tweets each day across multiple handles. The majority of content that we share are links to our blog posts. In 2014, Twitter was the LEADING social network for referring traffic to our blog.



2) Content strategy without defined goals is futile

It is important to establish goals and know what you are hoping to get out of your campaign before you start tweeting. Common goals include audience building, brand awareness, engagement, traffic, and conversions. (We developed this handy infographic to help determine goals and how best to measure them.)  In Thompson’s tweet, there was no call to action asking users to click on the link. If he wanted to drive traffic to the website, adding a call to action or teasing users with a partial image to pique interest could have helped. Thompson’s tweet was viral and received a lot of clicks, but my guess is that most people didn’t feel the need to click on the link because they had already got the gist of his piece from the image. Thompson’s goal was to drive traffic to a website, but his post was not optimized for driving traffic. It was designed for engagement – getting people to share and respond. If you want to get people to leave Twitter to go to a website, you need to give them a compelling reason to do so. 


3) Organic reach is not enough

In social media, media is the operative word. Like all other paid media channels, Twitter is in the business of keeping the feed informative and interesting. If you want to drive more traffic and reach more users, Twitter Ads are a must. We reached out to a friend at Twitter and here is what he had to say:

When you are trying to drive serious traffic with Twitter, you should opt to use ads. Twitter Ads allow you to:

  • Activate specific targeting parameters
  • Utilize different creative such as website cards
  • A/B test multiple tweets for the highest click-through rate (CTR)
  • Adjust top/low performing ads
  • Among other things!

I would challenge Thompson to optimize his tweets for website conversions, then experiment with Twitter Ads and compare the results that he had organically with this post.

Finally, Thompson compares the CTR on his tweet to that of display ads in East Asia, which is like comparing apples to oranges. Users interact with display ads in a completely different way than they do social media posts. Twitter tells us that the benchmark for engagement is around 1-3%, so by Twitter standards, Thompson’s tweet was within the average range. There are many factors that play into tweet engagement such as the number of followers you have and what industry you are in. It would be interesting to see the difference in CTR when tweeted from Derek’s account with 27,000 followers and The Atlantic’s account with 922,000 followers. 

I would challenge Derek to continue with his investigation. Test some different formats, try Twitter Ads, add a call-to-action and update his readers with his findings. With any online marketing strategy, there is some trial and error that has to happen. I certainly wouldn’t rule out one of the largest social networks because of an experiment with one tweet.

For five tips on getting started with Twitter Ads, check out our video tutorial!