Do CEOs Really Need To Tweet?

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A newly-released study on the impact of tweeting CEOs garnered some eye-catching headlines:

CEOs Who Tweet Held in High Regard” (eMarketer)

Study: 74% Of Respondents More Likely To Buy From Companies With CEO Social Media Engagement” (The RealTime Report)

The Benefits of CEOs Who Tweet are Legion, Survey Finds” (TechVibes)

Pretty compelling stuff, no?

The write-up from eMarketer (a source I find particularly credible) said:

“Survey results indicate that consumers believe C-suite engagement in social media can benefit how they view a brand and its executive leadership. The majority of survey respondents, 78%, said CEO participation in social media leads to better communication, while 71% said it leads to improved brand image and 64% said it provides more transparency.”

My take: There’s something fishy going on here.

Intuitively, these claims are little hard to swallow.

At the moment, public sentiment is clearly against large banks. If Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, were to start tweeting, would that sway public opinion in favor of the bank?

Or let me ask you this: Do you think the average consumer knows who the CEO of Procter & Gamble is? Of Southwest Airlines? Of McDonald’s?

These companies are all on Fortune’s list of Most Admired Companies. How much would consumers’ purchase intent in these companies improve if the CEO tweeted? What could the CEOs possibly tweet that would increase brand image?

I guess if Southwest’s CEO tweeted news of each flight delay that might help the airline appear to be more transparent. But this presumes, of course, that every SWA traveler follows the CEO, and — even more importantly — is glued to Twitter every second of the day.

Here’s the point: Real people don’t care THAT much about Twitter. Real people don’t check their tweet stream constantly to see what CEOs are tweeting.

And this is why the headlines emanating from the study smell so fishy: Because the firm that did the study didn’t survey real people!

Just one of the sources listed above even bothers to indicate who was surveyed. Most simply refer to “xx% of survey respondents.”

The clue, however, is provided in a chart on eMarketer’s site. In it, we see that respondents were “employees of Fortune 1000 companies.”

Which employees? A random sample of Fortune 1000 company employees? Or was it the marketing and PR people in those companies, people whose opinion on the benefits and impact of CEO tweeting might just be a tad skewed?

Bottom line: This study does not prove that CEOs could improve their firms’ brand image or purchase intent among consumers. 

Reality: There are far better things for CEOs to be doing than tweeting. 

However: There are times when CEO tweeting can be effective. 

A scheduled TweetJam could be a great way for a company’s customers to interact with a Fortune 500 CEO at some scheduled time (this is very different from being an “active” Twitter user, however).

During a crisis, establishing a twitter presence may very well be an effective way of communicating with the public to keep them up-to-date on the issue, and to have crisis-related messages disseminated through retweets. 

I don’t doubt that for a few CEOs (e.g., pseudo-celebrity types like Zappos’ Tony Hsieh), tweeting is a way of connecting with customers and building brand presence. But to conclude — especially based on the study mentioned here — that it’s universally applicable, is foolish.

The bigger question, though, is: How can CEOs better communicate with constituents (i.e., customers, employees, investors, etc.)? Is a channel that limits messages to 140 characters and provides no indication if messages are seen or read really a good channel for communicating? 

In that regard, Facebook may be a much better alternative for CEOs than Twitter.

p.s. Shame on all the publications citing this survey for not doing their homework, and misrepresenting the findings of this study.

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