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A Twitter Experiment – The Dangers of Blind ReTweeting

Henry Elliss
Henry Elliss
Managing Director
21 April 2011

Yesterday, I did something a bit sneaky. I’d even go as far as to say it was a little bit mean…

But it was all in order to make a point, so hopefully those people who helped me make this point will forgive me!

For a long time now, I’ve been dubious about the effectiveness of the practise of asking celebrities on Twitter to retweet a charity message or link – I’ve even blogged about it over on Econsultancy. So I decided to do a little experiment to find out how effective this method REALLY is.

Before I go any further, I should clarify a few things. First of all, I have nothing against using Twitter as a fund-raising tool. Far from it – I think that, if done well, Twitter can be a great way of raising awareness and driving traffic to a good cause. My issue is simply about the (what I believe to be) mistaken assumption that having a famous person retweet your link will be a useful thing to do. Secondly, I don’t have anything against Celebrities themselves supporting charity efforts, especially on Twitter. The recent twitrelief auction is proof enough of that – and I’ve seen lots of examples of famous people promoting causes they are passionate about and getting good results.

Anyway, my experiment basically went like this.

Using my personal blog (better to be safe than sorry!) I constructed the below blog post, then shortened it using a URL shortener. I then sent this link, along with a suitably pleading message, to a select bunch of famous people on Twitter. I also tweeted it to my followers, as a sub-experiment (more on that later) but the important thing was the celebrity part. Here’s the post, along with what I tweeted:


The results were definitely mixed, but go some way to proving my point. Here’s a rundown of what happened:

  • Several celebrities did retweet the message (though some removed it after being notified of the link’s content). Presumably others I sent it to either ignored it on principle (I wasn’t too picky about who I sent it to, and may have targeted some folk who never do this) or saw through my plan!
  • Quite a few people DID click the link, and several let me know about it on Twitter. The blog post itself got over 40 visits, though some of these were prompted by me.
  • Of those that were told what had happened after, some took it rather badly – some took it in the spirit in which it was intended!
  • Quite a few of my own followers and friends retweeted the link too, with some taking umbrage at being “duped” afterwards.

So what lessons can we take from this?

First off, I realised that the concept of a friend retweeting a tweet and an (unconnected) famous person doing so are quite different. As several people pointed out, following somebody implies a certain level of trust in them – presumably you know they aren’t a spammer or scammer, so feel a bit less hesitant about going on trust when you retweet them. So I probably shouldn’t have muddied the waters of the experiment by posting the tweet to my feed.

Second, several famous people proved that they are happy to retweet something without knowing WHAT they are posting. Whilst I definitely admire their generous spirit in happily helping out what they assume are good causes, doing so without even checking the link out themselves seems a little risky. More on that later…

Thirdly, the people who DID retweet it had very little effect on the “success” of the tweet – the low level of people actually clicked on it compared to their audience size (at current estimates, the retweet was theoretically visible to over 47,000 users) that this surely proves how little effect these charity retweets actually have.

In discussing the experiment afterwards, it’s clear that people feel passionately about the subject. One celebrity (I won’t name them) even took the time to leave me a comment on my blog. They were basically upset that I’d tricked them, when they were just trying to help. But this is why that might not always be the most helpful course of action:

A lot of the recent viruses and “malware” that have spread around Twitter have done so through malicious accounts sharing links between users – some even “hacking” regular users’ accounts to make THEM spread the message further. To blindly retweet a link without even clicking on it seems like you’re just ASKING for trouble – what if you’re spreading a malicious link to your 20,000+ followers unknowingly?

Whilst I wouldn’t want to make sweeping judgements, I suspect a *few* of the people who happily retweet these requests are doing so to make them feel like they’re doing some good – which some probably are. But my main point stands – if you retweet a link without even checking it first, you’re putting yourself and your followers at a lot of potential risk.

I’ve had a few people – some associated with high-profile charities – pointing out to me that they have seen some level of success from the practise of having celebrities retweet a message or cause. I certainly don’t argue that – we work with a number of charities here at Tamar, and some of them have seen very big growth in their followers thanks to messages from celebrities. But having a famous person mention your @charity in a “glowing endorsement” tweet is very different to a member of the public expecting a retweet from a famous person to drive traffic to a charity page or sponsorship site.

I should end by saying I know this is by no means a cut-and-dry debate – and I’m very keen to hear people’s thoughts on the results I saw. Obviously as a Twitter user I’m free to stop following any person who over-uses this feature. But I think people should be a little more careful with the links they retweet…

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