The power of Twitter is undeniable — in the right circumstances

The world discovered the power of Twitter during the past week, when Iranians provided a real-time account of their country’s political unrest.

Minnesotans had a preview last fall, when political protesters and journalists used Twitter to chronicle events at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

Based on these undeniably compelling examples, it’s tempting to anoint Twitter as the next great development in communications — and, in fact, many have done so.

Our agency has used Twitter with good results for several clients. Intelligently applied, it can be a great way for marketers to get the word out about a product or an event.

But before you jump blindly on the Twitter bandwagon, let me offer a cautionary note in the form of a recent study by faculty and students at Harvard Business School.

Researchers sampled the usage patterns of more than 300,000 Twitter subscribers. What they found:

• Half of all Twitter users “tweeted” less than once every two months.

• The top 10 percent most prolific users accounted for more than 90 percent of the tweets.

• The median number of lifetime tweets per user is one — meaning half of all the people with a Twitter account never post a single tweet.

On most social networks, the researchers note, the top 10 percent of users are responsible for about 30 percent of the content.

What this means is that, at least for now, Twitter has collected a relatively small population of rabid users who tweet relentlessly. Meanwhile, the masses sign up for an account out of curiosity and rarely use it.

As the Harvard study notes, “Twitter resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.”

In other words, Twitter isn’t a way to keep in touch with your friends, like Facebook. It’s more like a constant, flashing billboard carrying information from people with a definite message to get out.

For marketers, the implication is clear. If you can tap into a network of committed Twitter users, word about your product can spread quickly. Twitter super-users are engaged, in touch and love telling the world about their discoveries. It’s like in the days of old media, when a mention by a prominent newspaper columnist could dramatically boost your company’s profile.

But it’s not automatic. Your message must have meaning to its intended audience, and you’ve got to be engaged in the Twitterverse. If you’re one of those who tweets every two months, your odds of becoming the next Twitter sensation are minimal.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Nigel Parry on 06/22/2009 - 12:00 pm.

    “What this means is that, at least for now, Twitter has collected a relatively small population of rabid users who tweet relentlessly. Meanwhile, the masses sign up for an account out of curiosity and rarely use it.”

    This study overlooks the point that some people join Twitter to *follow* others, not to *publish* their own tweets.

    The logic of the study appears to be that because the overall statistics show that a smaller percentage of users are responsible for most of the Tweets, then, “Twitter resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.”

    But that way of looking at it really skews the power of the medium. Just because the majority of people who own a telephone aren’t telemarketers, who make more calls than anyone else, doesn’t mean that the telephone isn’t a worthwhile medium.

    The final sentence in the article says, “If you’re one of those who tweets every two months, your odds of becoming the next Twitter sensation are minimal.”

    This overlooks the tagging concept of Twitter. By adding a hash before keywords, eg. #tasteofminnesota, then people searching for that topic can easily find your tweet among other Taste of Minnesota tweets, even if it’s the only one you made in a year.

    There’s a lot of people sounding off about the validity Twitter these days as this article notes. But if you’re going to join the gaggle of talking heads, at least acknowledge the key features of the medium that undermine the overall nay-saying tone of this article.

  2. Submitted by John Reinan on 06/22/2009 - 04:08 pm.

    Excellent points, Nigel. Still, based on my own Twitter experience, I think it’s undeniable that a relative handful of avid users provide a disproportionate amount of the content.

    And although I have no way of proving it, I’d argue that a person with a Twitter account who rarely tweets is unlikely to be an avid reader, either.

    With Twitter, I think you’re either all in or not at all.

    I cheerfully yield on the hash tag.

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