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Twitter Retweet Contests: Viral Marketing or Social Media Spam?


Those of us who eat, sleep (and occasionally — oh nevermind) on Twitter have noticed an increase in the Twitter “RT Contests” being promoted by companies in an effort to leverage folks who want free shwag to whore out their promotion.

When it was only a few companies, it didn’t seem so bad, but now that all the cool kids are doing it, has it become just another kind of Twitter spam?

This has been a bug up my ass for a while, but I let it go, since it seemed like there were really only a handful of companies pushing them. Now that the trend seems to be spreading like social media herpes, I decided to share a few thoughts.

If you were the FIRST person to come up with this idea, you *might* have been clever. But you weren’t. Odds are, you weren’t even in the first thousand to try it. You jumped on the bandwagon after you saw people you follow mindlessly posting contests and promotional tweets in the desperate hope of winning a donkeypunch, or a unicorn or whatever it is the company was hawking.

Fundamental Misunderstanding of Twitter

I can see the allure. It’s free, and has the potential to spread like wildfire, as many things do on Twitter. And it’s ZOMGSOCIALMEDIABBQFTW!!

The problem is that as this technique gains popularity, it begins taking over user’s Twitter streams, especially when it’s being used by a popular company.

Okay, I lied. That’s not the only problem.

The second problem is that it demonstrates once again a fundamental misunderstanding by companies about how Twitter should be used – or rather, how Twitter users expect and want it to be used. I have said this a hundred times, and will likely say it a hundred more – Twitter is about conversation. It is a two-way street. If you’re looking for a way to broadcast promotions, use an email newsletter list, targeted ads, or another more appropriate advertising vehicle.

Another facet to this is the fact that many companies don’t grok that Twitter isn’t Facebook. Twitter isn’t just a place where you connect with people you already know – trusted friends and colleagues. Twitter, by it’s very nature, encourages you to connect with people you have never met, and with whom you may share *some* common interests, but I can tell you my own list of Twitter followers are as varied as colorful as can be imagined. A good many of them classify themselves as geeks in one way or another, but even with that seemingly clear delineation, some are math geeks, some are science geeks, some are literature geeks, and so on. Some are Mac users, some are Linux/BSD or Windows users. Even out of the smaller subset of people on Twitter that I interact with every single day (my Twitter BFFs?), they’re not going to have the same interests.

Encouraging your Twitter followers to spam their friends with contests and promotions that they very likely may not even be interested in will only result in their followers resenting you *and* unfollowing the original tweeter. I treat RT contests very much like the recent syphilitic plague of Twitter-based games such as Mafia Wars. If I get an @reply or DM that was generated by a Twitter game, that is an instantaneous unfollow, no backsies.

I have marginally more patience for RT contests than Twitter games, only because I still see them less often, but anyone who knows me knows patience isn’t one of my many, many virtues, so if this trend continues, I could easily see my stance getting a little more aggressive on it.

Worst of the Worst

The worst offenders are folks like MacHeist, who offers free Mac software for download, but only if you tweet an ad for them. Their system actually checks to see if you have tweeted this message, and only then will allow you to download the software. Fucking lame.

They’ll call it a clever promotional tool, I call it blackmail. Somehow requiring a user to tweet something in order to enter a contest feels less awful to me than their approach – perhaps because contests already come with the sense that your chances of winning are limited, so a user is more likely to opt not to tweet and enter because they have decided that their slim chance of winning is not worth pissing off their followers.

Incidentally, I have spoken to a few groups that have used Twitter Tweet/RT contest promotions before, and according to them, their success rate wasn’t even very good, according to whatever metric by which they gauge this sort of thing. That is, of course, entirely anecdotal, since I made no effort to solicit this information from many of the larger companies using it because I don’t *care* how successful it is. It’s still obnoxious.

I was curious what my own Twitter followers thought, so I posted an (unscientific) poll:

Only *one* user voted that they felt this was “clever marketing” (and that vote followed me remarking that I found it interesting that no one selected that option yet, so there’s a good chance the voter was just being a wiseass.) Almost 25% answered that they felt it was flat-out SPAM, and over 60% said it depends how it’s executed, but it feels mostly spammy to them.

The Secret

Here’s the big secret these companies seem to be missing – if your contest doesn’t suck, many of your users will retweet it because they *want* to, not because they have to.

Make it easy for them to tweet it – set up a pre-filled Twitter message so they only have to click “tweet” (but always always ALWAYS give them the chance to alter or add to the message) after they’ve signed up for the promotion and they probably will! If the prize or promotion is good enough on it’s own merit, people will talk about it. You don’t need to strong-arm them into doing it.

It comes down to part of the psychology of Twitter users. Being the first to tell their followers about something they think is awesome, and they think their followers will find awesome, is one of the most rewarding aspects of Twitter. It helps establish them as an authority on all things awesome, and shows their followers that they have something of value to offer. In return, their announcement gets Retweeted, and they feel good knowing they have sent a message that resonates with many of their followers. It is a win-win for the original tweeter, and for their followers.

Let this social dynamic of Twitter work on it’s own. This organic way of spreading information is exactly what made Twitter popular – not by companies forcing users to shill for them.

What are your thoughts? Am I over-reacting? Let me know in the comments.

About the author


I'm a tech nerd from NY/CA now living in Lisbon, Portugal. I run Grokability, Inc, and run several open source projects, including Snipe-IT Asset Management. Tweet at me @snipeyhead, skeet me at, or read more...

By snipe
Snipe.Net Geeky, sweary things.

About Me

I'm a tech nerd from NY/CA now living in Lisbon, Portugal. I run Grokability, Inc, and run several open source projects, including Snipe-IT Asset Management. Tweet at me @snipeyhead, skeet me at, or read more...

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