What’s a Twitter follower worth?
That’s not a metaphysical, existential or even a rhetorical question. The question has come up in federal court, and it’s a topic raised in greater depth this week by Jess Collen in his column in Forbes.com. The case in point involves a company called PhoneDog. We’ll leave the details to Jess, but the case involves a company employee who Tweeted on behalf of the company. When he left PhoneDog, he changed his Twitter handle and took 17,000 followers with him. PhoneDog is claiming $300,000 in damages saying that the employee purloined trade secrets.
This is a situation that is now coming up on a regular basis and sure to be at the root of an ever increasing number of corporate and employment disputes. When former CNN anchor Rick Sanchez left the company, he changed his Twitter handle from @ricksanchezCNN to @ricksanchez, and also took his followers. In that case there was no fallout. CNN let it go.
Let’s leave aside the question of the actual ownership of Twitter followers and focus just on their value. There are numerous companies that will fill your Twitter ranks with hundreds and even thousands of followers for pennies a name. Granted, many, if not most, of them will be fanbots or spambots. A truly engaged follower is worth much, much more. But how much? And how do you prove it? Magazines, newspapers, television networks and websites have all attached a value to a pair of eyeballs. Whether the value reflects reality is another question, and in time we’re sure to arrive at some formulation for Twitter. We’ll see whether it’s determined by an ad agency or an expert witness at trial.
In the meantime, here’s how you can avoid the question altogether. When you take a job or hire an employee, make sure that the terms of social media use are laid out. That will not only describe your rights and responsibilities but indicate ownership if it becomes an issue down the line.