Study on Youth Twitter Adoption Misses the Boat

by Scott Allen - June 1, 2009 
Filed Under Marketing, Research, Social Networking, Twitter

twitter study youth marketshare: Study on Youth Twitter Adoption Misses the Boat twitter social networking research marketing Today I read an article on CNET, Study: Young Adults Haven’t Warmed Up To Twitter. It reported the findings of a recent study about youth engagement with Twitter vs. other social media platforms such as Facebook and MySpace. (Original study: Gen Y’s Are Not Yet Taking Flight on Twitter, Participatory Marketing Network)

Both miss the boat in their assessment of why more youth aren’t on Twitter.

First off, the facts.

Participatory Marketing Network study only interviewed 200 people, which is far too few for an accurate study.

The group they interviewed was was 18-24 year olds. (I’ve seen these same types of stats from studies about high school aged youth as well, so I’m going to respond to misconceptions about both this age group, and the younger group. When I say “youth” I’m referring to both high school aged and these young adults.)

According to the Participatory Marketing Network study, only 22% of youth are on Twitter, in contrast with 99% that are on at least one social network, such as Facebook or MySpace.

The Real Reason More Youth Aren’t on Twitter

In my experience, it has little to do with youth having reluctance or “not warming up to” Twitter, and everything to do with certain aspects of youth lifestyle that increase the barriers to adoption. From what I’ve seen the youth who have overcome these barriers absolutely love Twitter.

I can say this with a high degree of confidence because one major aspect of our business is working with action sports brands, and I’ve been actively involved in web, marketing, and design in the action sports industry (surf, skate, snowboarding, etc.) for over a decade. Keep in mind that action sports brands are largely targeted at youth and young adults.

Observed characteristics of frequent Twitter users:

  1. Many frequent Twitter users either use it multi-tasking while working on a computer (many at their job) or on the road from high-end PDA mobile devices and smart phones.
  2. Many of those who Twitter on a PDA use their mobile device primarily for business, and secondarily for fun. The business use switches to pleasure use more often with increase in income.

Observed characteristics of typical youth lifestyle:

  1. Most youth are still in school and have part-time or summer jobs. They don’t usually have full-time professional jobs where they would be at a computer for long periods of time with access to Twitter. (With exception of the older end of the age range surveyed.)
  2. Youth are active and on the go…their most important piece of technology is the cell phone, and its mostly used for pleasure. While they do have some disposable income, most youth don’t have large enough budgets or business purposes for buying high-end PDA’s yet, such as iPhone and BlackBerry, for which all the most popular mobile apps for Twitter are developed. This will change though (who knows, this might be out of date even a month after this is published) – the number of youth with high-end mobile devices will increase, and there are constantly new apps being developed for middle and lower end mobile devices. (According to the study, 38 percent of youth have an iPhone or iPod Touch – this isn’t helpful though because it doesn’t differentiate the stats on iPod Touch vs. iPhone. I would guess that out of the 38 percent, less than 20% of those are iPhone.)

You can see there are some conflicting characteristics between frequent Twitter users and typical youth. These create real barriers to Twitter adoption for most youth.

For Twitter to really have value, it requires being plugged in for a good portion of the time, whereas Facebook and MySpace only require a small chunk of time here and there (making it easier for many youth to adopt). Because youth are so active, and most don’t have full-time professional jobs where they work at a computer for large stretches of time, the only way to be fully engaged on Twitter is on mobile devices. Mobile devices are extremely popular with youth – the most important piece of technology for most. But because most don’t have the budget or the motivation to buy a high-end mobile device, Twitter isn’t a practical option for them.

Youth use social media in a way that is very natural and integrates smoothly with their lifestyle. It’s like walking or breathing. It just happens. If something can’t easily integrate with (and add to) their lifestyle, it won’t be adopted.

Now, let’s look at all the reasons why youth might love Twitter:

So, the problem is definitely not that Twitter is a platform youth wouldn’t like.

Twitter requires logging some time before you can really wrap your head around it and grasp its value. Before using Twitter for a bit, it seems really weird to many. It may not make sense to some youth at first (just like adults), but the ones who log enough time with it to really catch on to its appeal will likely stick with it.

Look at the hot youth action sports brands. Many of them are on Twitter. For a glimpse, take a look at these lists of action sports brands & personalities on Twitter:

That’s a lot of youth-targeted brands on Twitter…and there are definitely more out there.

These brands know their target audience…which means that they wouldn’t “waste time” on Twitter if young people didn’t like it.

If you’re still not convinced, do a Twitter search for topics that interest younger audiences, and you’ll find plenty of engaged youth on Twitter.

One of the problems with a lot of studies like this recent one, is that they look purely at data, and don’t actually immerse themselves in the target audience they are studying. Numbers are important but they rarely tell the whole story. It would be much more informative if they not only measured the data, but also spent time getting inside the heads of the group they are studying. It would also be more enlightening if they had spent time talking with people familiar with their target group to analyze lifestyle habits, ways of thinking, etc and gotten their expert input.

More articles about this study:

At the E3 Conference, it was announced that Microsoft will be adding Twitter and Facebook to XBOX Live on the XBOX 360, and it will allow for smooth integration between social networks and XBOX Live accounts for the next evolution of social gaming. Expect a surge in youth adoption of Twitter once this happens. Way to go Microsoft…you did your homework on this one. (Not being sarcastic…for once.)

UPDATE 09/10/11:
Some more articles on this topic that support what I’m saying here:

I realize that list is a bit Mashable-heavy, but what can I say…they have good info when it comes to social media.



3 Responses to “Study on Youth Twitter Adoption Misses the Boat”

  1. Mark Aaron Murnahan on June 2nd, 2009 11:07 am

    I believe that you make some good points here. However, it is clear that Twitter has attracted a more mature base than that of other networks. This will surely change in time, but for now it is largely a more “grown up” audience.

  2. Scott Allen on June 2nd, 2009 12:39 pm

    @Mark: Thanks! I definitely wouldn’t disagree about the stats that Twitter has a more mature audience (for now), but my intent with this post was more to look at the reasons why youth haven’t engaged as much with Twitter yet as they have on some of the other social networks. A lot of the people collecting and analyzing stats are making poor assumptions about why more youth aren’t on Twitter yet.

  3. Robert Fisher on August 1st, 2009 2:35 pm

    Great Article!

    One thing that I don’t recall reading is that Twitter is not as real time as say Yahoo Messenger and in the same context is not as demanding to reply back.

    With Twitter, I don’t feel like I have to reply right away…I can come back to it later and I don’t feel like it is rude or an action of ignoring the submitter.

    Where as with messenger, I feel I have to respond sooner or the other person would assume I am ignoring them or have left my desk.

    I am no expert in marketing and social networking (in youth age groups) but I envision that social websites are used in conjunction with a messenger type utility. The webspace is for show while the messenger is for communication. At least that is what my 15 year old seems to be doing when I glance over her shoulder.

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