Haslam Study Demonstrates Why Companies Shouldn’t Ignore Mean Tweets

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Kelly Hewett

The Twittersphere erupts almost daily into firestorms of complaints about companies. If you get caught in this situation, most public relations professionals will advise you not to “feed the trolls.” But, a new study suggests that ignoring mean tweets usually results in a negative feedback loop among the media that affects branding and profits.

“Bank of America, the firm in the study that subdued these firestorms best, used Twitter more for customer service than advertising,” said Kelly Hewett, an associate professor of marketing in the Haslam College of Business at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “More consistent, moderately toned tweets led Bank of America to be much more effective than a firm that sent out one fifth the tweets with a much more positive tone, such as those with promotional messages.”

Hewett, and her co-authors at the University of Maryland and Massey University, examined how the interdependence of firms’ communications in both traditional and social media affects brands. They found online word of mouth to be the greatest influencer in what they call the ‘echoverse.’ The authors analyzed the volume and tone of messages in top newspapers, tweets, press releases and levels of advertising for the financial industry from 2007-2013 and measured their effect on consumer sentiment and business outcomes.

“Modern media is intensely interconnected,” said Hewett. “The only corporate communications tool that operated outside the echoverse in our study was advertising.”

While it increased banks’ levels of consumer deposits, advertising had no significant effect on traditional media coverage, social media tone or volume, or brand perception. However, press releases — which many public relations professionals believe are dying a slow death — were surprisingly effective. Positive press releases softened customer tweets and increased business outcomes.

The discovery that media negativity feeds on itself confirms leading viewpoints in the field, but the authors also demonstrated that these negative spirals led to fewer deposits at the banks, their proxy for business outcomes. And, while Twitter predictably had a strong affect on how consumers felt about brands, consumer sentiment and business outcomes had little influence on the Twitter conversation.

The media has not always been stuck in a negativity loop. Researchers found that in the early days of Twitter, positive messages had a more virulent tendency than negative ones and impacted consumer sentiment more strongly. In 2010, negativity started to take precedence and correspondingly the volume of company tweets began to be more important.

The study relies on one of the most comprehensive datasets in brand communications literature, incorporating more than 60,000 news articles, 18 million tweets and 5,000 press releases.

For more information contact: Katie Bahr at katiebahr@utk.edu or 865 974 3589.

About University of Tennessee

Haslam College of Business, University of Tennessee, Knoxville TN
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