OPINION28 October 2013

No, Twitter is not more important to teens than Facebook


A recent Pipar Jaffray study on the importance of social media has been misinterpreted by the mainstream press. But the headline was retweeted by researchers who should know better, argues Ray Poynter.

If you missed the kerfuffle, try the Daily Mail or the Huffington Post to get a flavour. The key point in the research, conducted by Piper Jaffray was that, in the US, twelve months ago, 42% of teens said Facebook was their most important site, and this year that had fallen to 23%. Since Twitter was rated as most important by 26%, many reporters were comfortable saying that Twitter had overtaken Facebook in importance (the UK’s Daily Mail actually said ‘the most popular’, and omitted the fact that this was US teens).

So, what should market researchers make of the results?

For the purposes of this post, I will largely ignore the fact that people are poor witnesses to their own motivations, and that most market researchers would argue that asking people which site is most important to them is a really poor way of measuring a site’s importance.

The first key point comes from the Piper Jaffray study itself. There are three big changes in the data, and a fourth interesting one:

  • Facebook fell from 42% twelve months ago, to 33% six months ago, to 23% now.
  • Instagram, owned by Facebook, increased from 12% twelve months ago, to 17% six months ago, and 23% now – making the net Facebook result about 46%.
  • ‘Other’ was at 2% twelve months ago, rose to 4% six months ago, and is now at 17%.
  • Twitter was at 27% twelve months ago, rose to 30% six months ago, and has now fallen to 26%.

This would suggest that the decline in Facebook is entirely down to shifts in scores to Instagram and ‘other’ – but no movement to Twitter, which has actually fallen.

My second point is based on how many teens use Twitter. In May of this year, the Pew Research Center published a report on teen social media usage. In that study, it concluded that 24% of US teens used Twitter, and that 94% used Facebook. Different studies, with different methodologies are going to produce different results, but I think it is clear that many more teens are using Facebook than Twitter. However, it is interesting that a large percentage of teens that use Twitter say it is their most important social media service. Similarly, a large percentage of teens who use Instagram say it is their most important social media service.

So there are perhaps three messages that I’d like market researchers to take away from this:

  1. Think before retweeting the popular press when survey data is being used. From the data it would be acceptable, in my opinion, to say that amongst people who use Twitter most of them say it is their most important social media site, but that only about one-quarter of Facebook users say this.
  2. Think about why a story might have appeared in the press. Could it be because a Twitter share offering is in air? (I am not suggesting that this is the reason for the study, but could it have accounted for some of the media push the story received?)
  3. If a story relates to one country, in this case the US, do not talk about it in global forums without specifying the country.

For what’s it’s worth, my hunch – which I’d like to test with further research – is that what the Piper Jaffray data is highlighting is that Facebook is being seen as a daily staple, as opposed to something exciting. Perhaps Facebook, like electricity, potatoes, and transport is becoming too ‘every day’ (what the social scientists describe as ‘quotidian’) to be described as important, but that does not necessarily mean it is less important.

Indeed if we believe behaviour over words, it could be that Facebook is now more important because it is so embedded in people’s lives.

Ray Poynter is director of Vision Critical University and author of The Handbook of Online and Social Media Research. He also founded NewMR.org.


9 years ago

Hear hear! We aren't great at taking time to understand the veracity of what we're posting. But I fear the real subjects of your piece are beyond your reach - the real problem comes from non-researchers (such as Daily Mail journos) taking press releases at face value and publishing them without understanding the context or meaning.

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9 years ago

I have seen other studies and data showing similar trends with twitter as preferred over FB. One study I saw was in USA Today, the other was in Business Insider, one them was in Buzz Feed, and there were a bunch for twitter. ( Pause for Laughter) I do very much agree with point that media mangles/oversimplifies, and then social media amplifies the effect. Not sure if anyone has been following the chinese stock NQ--perfect case study on the incredible financial consequences that can be linked to unsubstantiated fact. Not an academic issue at all, and with the ipo coming out--not sayin' nuttin'.. Note: I really have seen real survey and traffic data---not summarized---that do show overall shift to services like snap chat, vine, twitter away from email, and also FBook. On some level, it would perfect sense that FB growth will slow dramatically over next 9-10 years think MySpace, Friendster, classmates.com. The tidal wave of mobile will change things dramatically. RE: "This would suggest that the decline in Facebook is entirely down to shifts in scores to Instagram and ‘other’ – but no movement to Twitter, which has actually fallen." Note sure this is a given, or even probable. Need to look users directly. It could be true. The tweens will drive the change with the initial behaviors they adopt vs. teens switching. See Vine, Pheed Would say in about 5 years or so, we will see FB represent of Gen X/Gen Y, b

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