Twitter for Research: Why and How to Do It, Including Case Studies

Twitter is a great tool for research – today Hendry Lee from (@hendrylee) gives the ‘why’ and ‘how’ to do it.


We have all been there. After I registered with Twitter in 2007, I sat down looking at the screen, didn’t know what to do next.

“What the heck am I going to do with 140 characters?”

I didn’t understand why people want to know when or why I just took a can of Coke. (After all, the question on the Twitter page is “What are you doing?”)

I still don’t claim to know everything about Twitter until today, even though I learn hard to understand it. Well, perhaps that is the awesomeness of Twitter. Right now, if you go to TechCrunch, starting from their home page and browsing through the archives, almost in every page you will see a mention of Twitter or one of the myriad number of Twitter-related services / tools.

It seems like every day there are new ways to use Twitter. Some of those tools stay, but a few of them are no longer with us.

There really is something in the 140 characters.

Out of those fun things to do with Twitter, one thing that I personally think most useful is using Twitter as a research tool.

Even if you just heard of Twitter right now, you can start using the data if you know where and how to get them.

This article is written to help. Because there are so many things you could do with Twitter, I will only give a few examples of using various tools for research, and leave the rest for you as an exercise of imagination.

Twitter for Historical Research?

With millions of Twitterers who mostly are making their tweets public, we are actually building a database of information. Remember that once tweet, those tweets will be archived, probably in multiple places. FriendFeed is an example that immediately comes to my mind.

That could only mean one thing. Twitterers are writing history in real time. As more data become available, and as more people tweet in the future, anyone will be able to fetch historical data from any point of time about any topic.

For instance, forever the 2008 US President election is going to be recorded in Twitter. In the future people would be able to dig into the Twitter accounts of both Barack Obama and John McCain to see the schedules, summaries, opinions, etc. about the campaigns and debates.

A big difference between Twitter and a personal diary is that people are able to interact or witness the interaction live or anytime in the future. Another great thing is, everyone is now able to participate as part of the history and be read by interested people.

If that doesn’t impress you a bit, I don’t know what will…

Know How to Use Twitter

Fortunately, using Twitter is just easy. There is not much convention to remember. Basically you can just type in and send, just like instant messaging or short message service.

The difference is, to get the most out of Twitter, you need to know the following syntax:

  • @username – Reply. Tweets that start with an @ and then a username is a reply to that user. If you follow someone and want to reply to her, using reply is the way to go. Of course, this presumes that you don’t mind the message is available publicly.
  • #tag – Hashtag. Hash that is immediately followed by a tag (hashtag) in Twitter is a community-driven convention for adding additional context and metadata to your tweets. The contexts could be events, disasters, memes, or others.

As more Twitterers use the right syntax, they will add to the repository of data, which in turn return more useful results for future searchers. Right now, a lot of people forget to use hashtags for a particular event, and that increases the likelihood that their tweets will not be seen by others — or various Twitter tools that use hashtags.

Two Main Ways to Perform Research with Twitter

Twitterrers with a lot of followers certainly have an edge here. It happens everywhere. If you have a group of people who are willing to hear what you have to say, or if you have friends who you can call anytime, you can just do that and ask them for opinions or anything.

This leads us to the first way to perform research with Twitter, which is to…

  1. Ask. If you follow Darren, you will occasionally find him asking questions. Not only does that encourage participation from his followers, but he also gets the information he needs to write the next blog post, or just as an insight to understand his audience better. What you could ask the followers is limited only by your imagination. Questions that can be answered quickly are winners. With the right engagement, results will pour in soon after you tweet. Directing the followers to a series of questions, such as a survey, on the Web may work but I haven’t tested this yet. To get more responses from your questions, you might be interested to learn how to ask effective questions on Twitter.
  2. Search. By using publicly accessible data, you can also learn a lot. For instance, if I search for tweets from Darren and his followers, I’d be able to find out answers from his questions and use those for writing ideas or for other things.

With so many useful Twitter tools, searching is more complex than you might imagine. Using Twitter Search is useful to find event-related tweets, but if you want to get information about the trends, #hashtags is more useful though.

Knowing what is possible and which tools to use at the right time are two critical keys to save time and retrieve wanted results.

Essential Twitter Tools You Should Know About

This list is by no means complete. As of this writing, there are hundreds of Twitter tools out there but here are a few of them that I frequent. With these tools under your belt, you should be able to get started in using Twitter’s data effectively and expand your toolbox as you see fit.

  • Twitter client. Your mileage may vary but I find it easier to use Twitter client such as Twhirl to post updates. Not only that but you will be able to perform search inside Twhirl because of its integration with Twitter Search and TweetScan.
  • General search. Both Twitter Search and TweetScan provide reliable search for Twitter’s data, but the former allows you to drill down your search queries using the Advanced search feature.
  • Tag search. Twitter Search is also able to search for tags, but #hashtags returns a graphical representation of the trend for a specific tag. The downside is currently #hashtags is a bit slow and incomplete.
  • Conversation search. If you want to search for previous conversations, again Twitter Search is able to provide you with the information. If there is a conversation related to a tweet, you will see a link to Show Conversation.
  • Location search. TwitterLocal is a useful tool if you want to perform a search for tweets within or around a specific geographical area.
  • Keyword search. Monitter lets you monitor 3 keywords live at the same time with the ability to nail down geographic area. Use this to get a hint about current trends (how popular one keyword is).
  • Topical research. If you know someone who is an established expert in an industry or niche, use TweetStats to see which keywords he uses most often. TweetStats represents the data in TweetCloud, which is much like tag cloud but for Twitter.
  • Popular URL search. Twitt(url)y sorts URLs by how frequently they were mentioned in tweets. Think of a mention as a vote in Digg. The more people talk about a URL, the higher the rankings in Twitt(url)y will be. This tool is useful if you want to spot popular topics using aggregated Twitter’s data.
  • Data aggregation. This is not specific to Twitter, but a lot of people syndicate their Twitter feeds to FriendFeed. With it, feeds from Twitter and other social media sites are aggregated in one central location for followers to consume. FriendFeed also has powerful filtering and search feature.
  • Search result monitoring. Again, this is not directly related to Twitter, but often times conversations shift back and forth between blogs and Twitters. If you monitor the the Web and news, using Google Alerts or the blogosphere with Technorati, among others, you would be able to track the whole conversations.

Many of the tools above also publish feed related to the search queries. The only effective way to keep up with all of them, in my opinion, is through an RSS reader. While you can still receive Google Alerts via email, I find it more convenient to use an RSS reader because of the amount of information I track on a daily basis.

Use whichever you like most because there is no right or wrong way to do this.

Successful Twitter Stories

Of course, the following stories or case studies are related to using Twitter for research, basically anything from getting information to understanding a bit better about your target market.

  1. @bbgeeks builds 500+ loyal followers in 8 months (as of this writing there are 1,114 followers). Those followers are people who are interested in Blackberry. Not only they able to get free brand exposure and traffic, but also tons of content ideas and direct feedback from informal polls. How do you like your audience to tell you what to write instead of you struggling to come up with ideas to write next? Click here to read more about bbkgeeks case study.
  2. Just last week, offended moms took revenge over Motrin ads through Twitter by uniting and voicing their displeasure with the ad. The key is in the term “uniting” which in Twittersphere (Twitosphere?) can be as simple as using a uniform hashtag (#motrinmoms). Motrin’s web site was crashed by the rush of traffic. People were using Twitter Search to monitor conversations in real-time. Miss the entire story? The same tool tool also allows you keep up with the conversations. To be fair, after J&J apologized, Twitterers also twittered about it.
  3. David Murray (@DaveMurr) reached out to his followers and publicly announced that he was looking for work. He did a research in Twitter Search and keep track of conversations with RSS feed. He landed a job that had not even been posted. (Read full story.)
  4. If there is one company that aggressively — in a good way — uses Twitter, it is Zappos jumped on the Twitter bandwagon early to engage with their prospects and customers. They currently have more than 20,000 followers. Zappos encourage their followers to participate by holding a contest, in which they asked their followers to help them rewrite confirmation email. CEO Tony believes connecting more deeply with customers is important, although Twitter takes up a lot of his time.
  5. Businesses of different sizes are using Twitter for different purposes. Tapping into the minds of their customers through Twitter is a great way to research the market. But, what if you are a solopreneur who works from home? How could you use Twitter for research, with no followers? Just use those various tools mentioned above such as Twitter Search to find out what people are talking about in your niche. If you are a blogger, you could use it to get constant flow of ideas for blog posts or your next product.

I think you now agree Twitter is a powerful business tool that changes how people reach and respond to the market. Best of all is how average people are able to use the publicly available tweets to better understand their target audience.

If you have used Twitter in one way or another for research, or if you have thought about how it should be used, please share with us here!

Hendry Lee helps bloggers overcome strategic and technological challenges in starting and growing their blogs. He also writes about social media on his blog Blog Tips for a Better Blog – Blog Building University. While you are there, download your free eBook and subscribe to the blogging e-course!

Follow Hendry on Twitter (@hendrylee).


  • December 3, 2008

    I’d never even considered the use of Twitter for these types of research. With some of my freelance writing projects I’m bound to do a little research and some of my methods had gone stale.

    Now I know to add Twitter to my toolbelt.

    Thanks for the TwiTip.



  • December 3, 2008

    It’s the first time I hear about Twitter is used for research. Just join Twitter two days, but I discover many things in Twitter community and they help me much.

  • December 3, 2008

    Cool, but do you use all of them? As a blogger, i f you want to make twitip famous with twitter, what twitter tools you have used?

  • December 3, 2008

    I really like using Monitter, it’s easier for me to watch the flow of info go by instead of doing searches all the time. Great app. Also, thanks @hendrylee for the terrific article, I bookmarked this one!

  • December 3, 2008

    @Young_Yang: If you mean do I use all of them regularly then the answer is no. Part of it is knowing which tool is right for different situations.

    For example, instead of refreshing (or hitting F5) to refresh a search query, perhaps Monitter is better because it does that automatically. TweetScan also refreshes automatically every so often.

    While Google is still my favorite research tool, results from Twitter gets more interesting every day.

  • December 3, 2008

    great post! Very helpful information thanks

  • December 3, 2008

    My blog’s niche is mental health, specifically the Anxiety Disorders. You would think that Twitter would be next to useless for research, but I have found lots of information.

    Thank you for this detailed article — it was a lot of help!

  • December 3, 2008

    I think great research tool for Twitter that I found was yesterday called TweetGrid. You can follow in real time multiple keywords , for past 24 hours I have been watching certain keywords and I must say that I leanerd a lot.

    My story about Twitter starts with blogger-mania where almost every single blogger I know including you @Problogger started writing about Twitter more often. I joined and almost at the same time just because, I started noticing that I could get my resources and news faster then looking up RSS feeds or certain blogs.

  • December 3, 2008

    There sis so much to twitter that needs to be know how ot use effectly. Something so small can be, and have a great inpact to one’s “social agenda.”

  • December 3, 2008

    The first time I got on Twitter i didn’t understand anything.
    I started posting messages before I had any followers. So I was broadcasting to nobody!

  • December 3, 2008

    Good post, for real its a good post.

  • December 3, 2008

    I’m new to twitter and I was wondering what the stuff with the # in it meant. That alone made the article worth it, in addition to all the great info on research

  • December 3, 2008

    great info for newbies. I’ve been looking to connect with local tweeps and those that love volunteering, nonprofits & tacos! gracias!


  • December 3, 2008

    @Hendry Lee , thanks for your explanation.

  • December 3, 2008

    Excellent overview of search tools!

    This is a good example of building ‘Listening to the groundswell’-skills as mentioned in the book ‘Groundswell’ of Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research.

    They mention two strategies:
    1. set up your own community (e.g. build your twitter followers)
    2. begin brand monitoring; i.e. listening to the communication on you personal and/or business brand (by using e.g. these (re-)searching tools mentioned above)

  • December 4, 2008

    Thanks for the explanation buddy. It was really good.

  • December 4, 2008

    Regarding the use of Twitter for historical purposes – I’m sure Darren said something on Twitter recently about a lot of his older tweets disappearing. If the situation hasn’t changed, then this statement – “people are able to interact or witness the interaction live or anytime in the future” – is incorrect. Any idea what happened to Darren’s older tweets?

  • December 4, 2008

    Ben, I wish I know about missing tweets.

    But I believe Twitter is making the service more reliable every day. At the very least, we have seen less down time lately. During those down time, people claim that Twitter was dead, but it isn’t. Twitter is different than any other micro blogging platform which others have to work very hard to catch up.

    So to address your concern, that doesn’t defeat the purpose of using Twitter for historical research. Perhaps just weaken it a bit. But again, I’m sure we will see more reliable implementation for Twitter infrastructure in the future. Product quality is not optional at this age.

  • June 24, 2009

    Twitter is about the here and now. You only want current information.

    Why would you want info that is old?

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