Social Media Tracking: Revisiting the “Twitter Effect”

Sasha Baron Cohen was one of the hottest comedians on the earth back in 2009. After TV success with hit shows in the UK and a brief run in the U.S. on HBO, the comedian took one of his trademark quirky characters to the silver screen in 2006’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The comedy was a hit, creating excitement for his follow-up, Bruno, based on the last of his three infamous character from the TV shows. Bruno prompted a bidding war by studios for its rights, which cost Universal a reported $42.5 million. After a hefty marketing campaign and mostly positive reviews, the film opened to $14.4 million on its first Friday of release. That was more than 50 percent higher than Borat—and pundits were calling for another huge run. But the film hit a wall on its second day and plummeted by 39 percent (Borat rose by 10 percent on Day 2) and the drops continued until it was out of theaters with a shade over $60 million, less than half of Borat’s total. Pundits were quick to point out that the new social media service Twitter was filled with negative tweets about the film, declaring a cause-and-effect scenario with little empirical evidence—and thus the term “Twitter effect” entered the conversation.

In the following months many papers, articles, and TV segments attempted to prove or disprove the theory. Analysis ranged from complex mathematical equations that looked at the service with a strictly quantitative methodology to more of a qualitative approach focusing on surveys of users and their behaviors. This analysis also extended far outside the realm of Hollywood, as other industries were very keen on understanding the impact of the service on their products and how best to harness it.

As a side note, I began reporting on Twitter tweets in September of 2009 largely because my interest was piqued thanks to the debate surrounding Bruno, something I have continued at BoxOfficePro.com for the past eight years—the longest consistent Twitter coverage as it relates to the box office anywhere.

Fast forward to today and social media offerings such as Twitter are now the old men of the online landscape. Its user base has grown by over 20 times since the summer of 2009 and now sits at 328 million at the end of Q1 2017. The next logical question is, if the amount of users has grown that much, has the influence of the service on moviegoers also increased by that amount? Does the Twitter effect still exist? Did it ever?

The methodology here will be to look at all 2017 wide-release films up to and including the June 16 releases and how their first Friday-to-Saturday box office performance relates to their overall Twitter mentions and sentiment. Our analysis includes 60 films that had an average Friday-to-Saturday box office revenue decline of 1 percent, which basically meant that on average films tend to hold steady across their first two days of release. The same films on average saw a 10 percent fall in overall mentions across their first two days while their sentiment on average fell 9 percent. Once we had that baseline, we took it a step further and looked at the 10 films with the biggest declines from Friday to Saturday in 2017.

On average these 10 films saw a Friday to Saturday box office decline of 24 percent, while their positive-to-negative ratio fell 20 percent, and overall Twitter mentions rose 9 percent. When compared to the overall numbers, the sentiment for the top 10 with the biggest falls more than doubled but the resulting correlation between sentiment and box office still proved to not be statistically significant, with a correlation coefficient of just 0.18. So in a nutshell, the Twitter effect does not exist as it was originally described, even though a much larger percentage of North Americans are using the service and posting their reviews and anticipation.

Now that the quantitative portion of the analysis is over we need to delve a little bit further into the qualitative to get a better understanding of Twitter, its impact, and its users. Internet forums in general suffer from a regrettable troll mob mentality that can create massive chatter regardless of how true or relevant the source material is. Negative sentiment is oftentimes not related to anything to do with a film but rather an offensive tweet that snowballs into a trending topic. Twitter is ripe with these types of scenarios which can quickly create a trending topic that is the biggest news of the day surrounding a film. Ghostbusters (2016) is a prime example of this. The film had very poor sentiment leading up to its release largely due to a prolonged series of baseless sexist tweets which were unrelated to the film itself.

Bruno suffered a similar fate, enduring a raft of homophobic slurs and commentary that was quickly challenged by an equal number of the film’s defenders. There never was a Twitter effect as the term was originally employed, especially since at the time of Bruno’s release fewer than 5 percent of the North American population had Twitter accounts and likely less than 1 percent of moviegoers looked to Twitter for movie advice. Add to that the fact that it was a summer sequel with massive marketing, which creates front-loaded openings, and what we are left with is the only thing the “Twitter Effect” had any control over—increasing the public’s and Hollywood’s awareness of Twitter itself as a potential marketing source.

Studios have increasingly used Twitter as a marketing tool as opposed to the crowdsourcing tool that many had originally envisioned. Treating it as just another way to spend marketing budgets on blanket messaging has provided the least value. The best, and indeed most profitable, marketing campaigns on Twitter have been those that have engaged their prospective audiences. Campaigns for films such as Deadpool and Paranormal Activity spring to mind for their creativity and effectiveness. This is the true effect of the service—creating a unique and engaging channel for films to get their messages out, something that has been replicated and employed by studios for each new social media service over the past eight years. They can all partially thank Sasha Baron Cohen and Bruno for paving the way and shining a light on Twitter’s potential.

Alex Edghill

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