Twitter users: Real or robot? Advertisers and investors need to know

The federal government is looking to draw up a cohesive strategy for its agencies on social platforms, such as Twitter.

We know whole lot more about Twitter today than we did yesterday. The company has taken the wraps off its plans for an initial stock offering. We know how much money it made last year, or, lost, really. We know how much its CEO makes.

And how many monthly users it has: 218 million, give or take. Give or take because some of them are what're called bots, computer programs that automatically tweet and retweet. No humans required. Problem is that some of them get counted in the user totals, posing a challenge for advertisers and investors who may be considering whether to buy in.

Bots can be tough to spot on Twitter, at least at first glance. 

“If you only see one tweet and it's constructed well, and it's kind of clever, and it's not something that all the other bots are doing, it can be hard to tell,” says Dan Zarrella, social-media researcher at HubSpot, which helps companies market online.  

In its IPO filing, Twitter estimates that 7 percent of its users have the ability to tweet automatically. In other words, they could be bots. It estimates less than 5 percent of its users are false or spam accounts.

All this matters because Twitter’s business depends on ad revenue. And advertisers want to reach real people.

“Twitter has never been a social network oriented around real world identity,” says Zachary Reiss-Davis, an analyst at Forrester Research. “Unlike Facebook and LinkedIn, with Twitter an individual person can create as many different accounts as they would like. And many do.”

I can be on Twitter as @adrienehill and @KaiSpoof and @pretty-much-any-body else. Twitter counts each one as a separate user.

Any uncertainty about who marketers are reaching when they sponsor a tweet is a question that'll likely be repeated and retweeted in the run-up to the IPO.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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