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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Is the 'Twitter Effect' on box office just big-media hype?

October 9, 2009 | 12:44 pm

In the past few months, I've been reading story after story about the Twitter Effect, all of them essentially saying that movies like "Bruno" may have suffered unprecedentedly precipitous drop offs in their opening weekend audiences thanks to the speedy proliferation of bad buzz from Twitter-happy moviegoers. As Time magazine's Richard Corliss put it recently: " 'Bruno's' box-office decline from Friday to Saturday indicates that the film's brand of outrage was not the sort to please most moviegoers -- and that their tut-tutting got around fast. 'Bruno' could be the first movie defeated by the Twitter effect."

Twitter-logo But is it really Twitter or just regular old-fashioned word of mouth being spread more rapidly than ever by all sorts of instant communications tools -- texting, Facebook page updates, etc? OTX, one of the movie industry's leading market research firms, recently did an in-depth survey of movie buzz that came to a surprisingly contrary conclusion -- the Twitter Effect is overrated.

"Our research found a significant overestimation of the Twitter Effect," Kevin Goetz, the president of OTX's worldwide motion picture group, told me. "The number of people who use Twitter are only about 10% to 12% of all moviegoers. And when we asked people what was the most influential source of moviegoing word of mouth, Twitter finished last, at the bottom of the list."

OTX did an online survey of nearly 1,500 moviegoers in mid- September, the bulk of the sample being moviegoers from age 13 to 49, the key moviegoing demographic group. When asked what was the most influential source for word of mouth, most respondents picked "family and friends and coworkers," which scored 40%, followed by Facebook (31%), MySpace (9%), IMDB (8%), with Twitter and online message boards bringing up the rear with 6% each.

"The data suggests that all the media play for the Twitter Effect is really jumping the gun," says Vinnie Bruzzese, the exec VP of OTX's motion picture group. "It has an impact, but it's coming much later on, not as initial reaction. There may be people with a lot of followers on Twitter, but the most influential people in terms of word of mouth are still the people you're talking to every day -- your friends and co-workers."

The data offered similar results when word of mouth was broken down into more specific categories: very influential, somewhat influential and not at all influential. Friends and family still led the very influential category, with Twitter and online message boards ranking last. Bruzzese says that age wasn't a defining factor either. "We didn't see a teen effect at all. The teen numbers for Twitter weren't substantially different, in terms of word of mouth influence, from the older age groups."

It's not exactly a shocker that the mainstream media has once again blindly jumped on the bandwagon and wildly overstated the importance of a new social media tool. It seems like just yesterday when MySpace was being touted as a revolutionary social media platform, only to quickly lose steam and cachet in the online world. On the other hand, Twitter does seem like a perfect mechanism for quickly sharing information, so I asked a studio marketing chief for his reaction to the OTX survey.

"I'm not shocked," he said. "Twitter isn't a marketing tool, it's an observational tool. What it is really useful for is to eavesdrop in on a number of private conversations about a movie. You can quickly tell if people are all trending toward liking it or hating it. I think over time it will have more influence. But for now, what you're really getting with Twitter is the leading edge of opinions. It's a small percentage of moviegoers, but it's a very vocal, viral group -- like a online version of a ComicCon convention, floating around every weekend. So as a group, it probably has an influence far beyond its numbers. But can Twitter bring down a movie? Probably not."

He laughed. "I'd say it's still just one of many kinds of instant buzz that make it tougher than ever to be a movie marketer."   

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