How valuable are Twitter followers?

by Carl Natale on December 27, 2011

Noah Kravitz photo via Twitter

Noah Kravitz is fighting a lawsuit from a former employer that wants its Twitter account back.

If your employees are running your social media accounts, do you really own those accounts? If the answer is obvious, why is PhoneDog.com suing former employee Noah Kravitz?

PhoneDog.com is an ecommerce site selling mobile phones that also has a blog. Kravitz wrote for the blog and the Twitter account @PhoneDog_Noah. While tweeting, he gained 17,000 followers. When he quit the company, he changed the Twitter account to @NoahKravitz. He also told the New York Times that PhoneDog.com was OK with that and wanted him to promote them occasionally.

But now they’re suing Kravitz for $340,000. They claim those 17,000 followers were a customer list and property of PhoneDog.com.

The NYT is positioning this as a landmark case that can decide who owns social media accounts. I doubt it. Too many factors can be avoided for this case to have a much wider affect. And I don’t like the case. Too many mistakes were made.

Your followers are not customers

I don’t see how they can argue that Kravitz took a customer list. The followers don’t necessarily have a relationship with PhoneDog.com. This argument may fly when a sales rep tries to take his Rolodex to his next job because there is a certain proprietary knowledge contained there. But Twitter followers are public lists that any competitor can see and “poach.”

And Kravitz was a writer not sales rep. His job was to engage in a public forum. There was nothing proprietary about what he did.

The name was @Phonedog_Noah

When you name a social media account after your employer, who do you think it belongs to? Seriously. This account was created to promote PhoneDog.com. And Kravitz tweeted as part of his job.

This why you need a social media policy

A simple memo spelling out responsibilities, naming conventions, best practices and ownership could have solved the problem.

Just how valuable are Twitter followers?

If you buy my first argument that followers aren’t as valuable as customers, why do you want to take the account with you? By transferring the audience to his personal account, he assigns value to it.

And just how many of those followers would PhoneDog.com have kept with the account? One of the problems with letting an employee’s style and personality dominate a social media account is that attracts an audience that isn’t interested in the employer’s voice and message. That 17,000-follower list becomes less valuable when Kravitz stops writing.

Why Kravitz should have started over

A list of 17,000 followers sounds impressive. It’s not celebrity impressive. But it’s worth bragging about.

Except when you consider how many of them actually are engaged with Kravitz. How many retweets, responses and clickthroughs did he get? How many of his tweets were lost among the thousands that each follower got?

If that 17,000 helped Kravitz get his new gig at TechnoBuffalo.com, then power to him. But how much did that help TechnoBuffalo.com? I bet hiring him didn’t create a 17,000 bump in unique visitors.

It would be much more honest to start over. Maybe he won’t reach 17,000 followers for awhile. But that new number will be people very interested in him. They will be more engaged and valuable.

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