Supposedly Dismal Twitter Statistics Actually Indicate Strength

A recent Harvard Business School study, titled “Men Follow Men and Nobody Tweets,” made many techies and the media question if all the fanfare surrounding Twitter is unsubstantiated hype.  The study found that 10% of Twitter users created 90% of tweets and that the median number of lifetime tweets for a user is—brace yourself—one.

Some (like the BBC’s article, “Twitter Hype Punctured by Study”) have suggested that this study means Twitter lacks retention value and that it’s not actually catching on with the masses. I’d argue the exact opposite.  Rather, it shows that Twitter is moving into an untapped niche as an information aggregator, which has big implications for companies’ social media marketing strategies.

It’s a good thing that people aren’t using Twitter like Facebook.  (HBS estimates that the top 10% of other social media sites’ members generate 30% of the sites’ content.)  Although the original idea behind Twitter may have been Facebook-esque (updating people on what you’re doing and staying in touch with friends), the site’s purpose has morphed—which I think will keep it sustainable in the long run. 

The Iran Election has shown this direction that Twitter is morphing: it’s where people go for up-to-the second breaking information and opinion.  People are less concerned about speaking and more about listening—listening to thought leaders, celebrities, and people “on the ground.”  For this type of information, no one else can compete: the news is too delayed, blogs are often too elaborate to update from a phone, most search isn’t in real time, and Facebook allows users access only to their Friends’ updates.  The ability to search for breaking content sets Twitter apart. 

What does this evolution in Twitter mean for companies looking to market through social media?  First, it means Twitter’s not going away.  Twitter has grown from 1.7 million unique visitors in May 2008 to over 19.7 million in May 2009, which signals that there’s something appealing to users aside from the media hype, even if users aren’t tweeting themselves.  Therefore, companies looking to enter the social media sphere can’t overlook Twitter as a passing fad.

Second, it means companies should focus less on going through layers of bureaucracy to create the perfect message, and more on distributing the message as quickly as possible to an audience craving up-to-the second updates.  Third, I think it means that companies should worry less about using Twitter to have conversations with a small vocal minority, and more about creating relevant, timely, and interesting messages which make the passive majority want to follow the company. 

Twitter is finally falling into its niche and gaining its own identity.  Companies who recognize and adapt early to users’ trends will give themselves the best chance to capture coveted social media mindshare.

Paul is a senior digital analyst, where he works with clients such as Stanley Black & Decker, the University of Virginia, Lenovo, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. He believes in using data to prove the value of creativity, cut out digital clutter, and resolve disputes.

More posts by Paul