A brand's image is related to the characteristics of who their fans follow on the micro-blogging site Twitter, say researchers, suggesting that Twitter fans of certain brands are likely to follow accounts that tweet about the environment.
The research, conducted by Aron Culotta and Jennifer Cutler of the Illinois Institute of Technology, examined accounts of millions of fans of over 200 brands across a variety of sectors on Twitter.
They found that who a brand's fans follow on Twitter can reveal brand image.
"We find that social network connections contain valuable information about brand image," said Culotta.
"Traditionally, marketing researchers rely on customer surveys to gain detailed insights about how brands are perceived - but surveys can be costly and time-consuming," he added in a paper forthcoming in the journal Marketing Science.
The authors first searched Twitter lists for accounts that were identified as exemplars of attributes like eco-friendliness, luxury and nutrition.
Next, they computed a social perception score for each brand on each attribute based on the overlap between each brand's followers and the followers of the exemplar accounts.
Interestingly, they find their Twitter perception scores closely match direct survey ratings of brand image on each of the attributes.
Cutler noted that "other recent approaches that involve analysing the text of user-generated comments around the brand are limited as well because the majority of social media users don't actively write about brands."
"Even fewer will write about a brand's relevance to a particular attribute. Focusing on what users do, rather than what they say opens the door to new insights," the authors noted.
The authors recognise that the motivations of individual consumers in following brands are likely varied and complex.
But by aggregating the behavior of millions of brand fans, they average out such differences to distill out the underlying brand image.