Overvaluing Twitter

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Scale-A-Week:  25 November 2010
Image by puuikibeach

Given the increased focus on “Twinfluence” thanks to measures like Klout, there are many organizations eager for success with so-called influencers (at least by Twitter metrics). Though some of these measures integrate more than just Twitter, they tend to be extremely 140 character centric. That may be a huge mistake for companies and nonprofits who overvalue the importance of Twitter in the larger social web context.

Let’s start with the fact that Twitter doesn’t even represent a strong minority of the U.S. population. According to Twitter’s last update in September, the network has 145 million members worldwide. Yet regardless of the number of accounts worldwide, active users are estimated to be significantly less. One study released a year ago pegged the active rate at 21%. Can you imagine literally reducing Twitter follower counts by 79% to get the accurate number?

How does this translate to the United States? According to Edison Research, while 87% of Americans are aware of Twitter, only 7% are active users, or approximately 21 million Americans. Compare that to the 41% who are active Facebook users (approximately 123 million Americans).

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Want more statistics? Pew Internet pegged Twitter usage at 8% of the American population. The numbers get worse, according to Pew. Only 6% of American households grossing more than $75,000 use Twitter. Additional analysis reveals that 48% of all active account users check other users’ updates every few weeks at best. Half of your followers are not listening!

This should tell a communicator that only 3.5% to 4% of Americans are actually using Twitter AND are actively reading their update streams. It sure seems like marketers are spending a lot of investment on influencer programs for a relatively small percentage of the population.

So why all the hype still? Unlike Facebook, Twitter is public and searchable (see Google Social Search story). And that makes Twitter imminently more friendly to two key stakeholder communities; marketers and content publishers, such as the media. Given what marketers and media companies do professionally, everyone hears a lot of noise about Twitter, but that awareness has not converted to actual usage (thus Edison’s very revealing statistics).

In 2009, the New York Times has attributed 10% of its web site traffic to Twitter. But according to Pew that gives the New York Times access to three audiences; young adults, minority internet users, and of course, urbanites. At that, consider that these are still small percentage of these demographics. What about the other 96% of the country?

One can have a lot of success with Twitter. But it is not the primary social network, and one with a lot of inactive accounts and relatively limited portion of the population. Proceed with caution if your market needs to reach more than this limited group of communities.

More importantly, make sure you know who your communities are, and where they like to talk. Don’t over value Twinfluence. Given that 92-93% of Internet using Americans don’t actively use Twitter, consider looking elsewhere an essential part of your research.

What do you think? Is Twitter overvalued as a medium?

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  • http://twitter.com/kamichat Kami Huyse

    It is absolutely true that marketers are overvaluing Twitter. The “rock star” status of some Twitterers still amazes me.

    I think another reason that Klout, and other 140-character-centric measures have gained popularity is because most people would not begin to know how to justify the spend on “influencers” unless they had some metric to back it up with their bosses. Klout, and the open nature of the Twitter stream, has made that easier to do (as you say) than Facebook and even blogs – though we all have tried :-) (Technorati, Alexa, etc.)

    I do believe that Twitter, as a whole, is having a societal effect, even if stuff that happens within it is reported on the news and causes effects elsewhere in the society. However, a recent research report by HP shows that 22 people/accounts drive most of the RTs on Twitter when a topic is trending, and most of those are mainstream media outlets (http://ow.ly/41zgl ). So, I would say it isn’t as much “twininfluencers”driving information and societal change, as it is the same old and already influential mainstream media.

    Twitter has its place, for sure, and some of the people on it are quite influential, but huge #s on Twitter do not equal success for a campaign.

    • Anonymous

      It is the same old! Good point on the news, and I also think it’s a niche play as you mentioned. A spice for the recipe, maybe even a key ingredient, but not the main dish for sure.

  • Rick

    I agree with Kami that it is overvalued for marketing, but the scarier thing to me is how overvalued it seems to be as a business.

    What we’re reading about the valuation of Twitter as an acquisition or IPO is back to 1999 stupid. The amount of money people are quoting for a minimal revenue and even more minimal profit (if they really make one) means people are forgetting recent history.

    I like Twitter, but would I invest in it at the levels people are talking about based on reality. NFW. Didn’t we learn a decade ago that if it seems too good to be true it is?

    • Anonymous

      I still have yet to see a P&L on Twitter or Facebook. They are private, but usually this is something VC-backed companies boast about… profitability. I am afraid you are right, that in many ways, the Groupon/Twitter/Facebook VC phenom is a bubble. There will be winners, but this one seems very questionable.

  • http://twitter.com/martin7970 Benjamin J. Martin

    Great post, it seems true that Twitter has been overvalued in certain markets. That’s why it’s important for the marketer to understand where their customers are conversing because otherwise they could be barking up the wrong tree.

    • Anonymous

      My big worry is that many see it as more than it’s worth. The Klout bubble is an indicator of this overhype.

    • Bellacook

      But keep in mind, Twitter is only one social network platform marketers are using. I don’t think any company with a social media strategy in play are putting all their eggs in the Twitter basket, but no doubt, they have to have a Twitter presence, at least at this point. Things can change tomorrow, we’ll see :-)

  • http://blog.owengreaves.com/ owengreaves

    All the hype? North America is a small player when it comes to World Internet Usage, plus Twitter’s strongest usage is Europe and the Asia’s NOT the Americas. So making this an all America view point is only a small part of the picture.

    So yes, Influence is over valued in North America, the rest of the world? Not sure.

    Just sayin.

    • Anonymous

      Two things on this 1) I operate in North America, so that’s what’s relevant to me and this blog, which is why it has this view. 2) If you can back it with #s, I’d be inclined to listen more deeply to these assertions. Much of this post is based on U.S. numbers.

  • http://toughsledding.com Bill Sledzik

    Could this be just another case of the social web’s echo chamber, Geoff?

    We’re here? Isn’t everyone?

    • Anonymous

      I wish it were that easy, but unfortunately the traditional media is on this bandwagon. You can’t watch CNN or read a major newspaper without Twitter references anymore. The Twitter hype bubble is very, very big given the relatively small percentage of people using it…

      • Bellacook

        I think as Social Media network marketing becomes more and more mainstream, those Twitter numbers will change, and you’re right it will be because traditional media is on the bandwagon, but they have to be, because that’s where the people are. Traditional marketers will be the force behind the continued growth of social media marketing.

  • Anonymous

    I actually thought Klout was more or less a joke when it first came around. How can an actually company measure influence on Twitter? Once again it’s a shoddy attempt at quantifying social media based on numbers and/or popularity. I’m surprised the Klout engine has gone this far to be even blogged about.

    • Anonymous

      What’s really sad is seeing companies and nonprofits take it so seriously. That’s the real danger.

  • Bellacook

    Your blog was very informative. I feel that companies who are in the process of developing a social media strategy, and those who are already in the game hopefully if they hired the right person, or people are actively engaged in several different social networks. I think Twitter and Facebook are definitely staples of social media networks, but absolutely not the only two to be involved in.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for adding so much to the conversation. Facebook and Twitter are Interstates. You have to get off the highway to do anything substantive.

  • http://richardrbecker.com/ Rich Becker

    Geoff,

    As I just mentioned while discussing your article on Twitter. I remember when AOL chat was how things got done.

    Best,
    Rich

    • Anonymous

      Go AIM, go AIM!

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  • http://twitter.com/charityestrella Estrella Rosenberg

    You know, I came to your blog to get one squirrel out of my head and comment on your earlier post on competition, and instead found another squirrel! Darn you, Geoff!! ;)

    I am 100% with you here. Speaking from the perspective of both a social change organization as well as someone who counsels them, there are two things I always tell people about twitter and influencers:

    a) Social media in all it’s forms is just one tool in a larger development, marketing and PR toolbox.

    Twitter is just a part of that one tool in that big toolbox: if social media or twitter are the basket you’re putting all your eggs in, get yourself a volunteer, Board Member or staff member with a traditional background in marketing or development post haste to talk some sense into you!

    That doesn’t mean twitter and social media don’t have value – they do: for access to niche markets, just like you point out with clear numbers.

    b) For a social change organization, someone’s who’s considered to be an overall “influencer” probably has very little influence over the people on twitter/social media you’re actually trying to reach.

    If you’re planning a campaign on twitter, or looking to spread awareness, you’re better off becoming familiar with the people who tweet about your cause and look for the person who seems to have the most influence among them (a Klout score isn’t how you determine this – your own powers of observation should make it clear who’s tweeting the most or being talked to the most in your cause space).

    A person that has influence in your community will deliver a message that’s much more likely to be heard and RT’ed than a twitter “rockstar”.

    Of a “rockstars” followers, how many of them feel such a personal connection to that influencer that they’d click on a link or pass on a message that they weren’t immediately touched by? Very few.

    A person who’s an influencer in YOUR cause community has a smaller audience of people that are used to hearing about the cause and understand the tweeter’s connection, passion and commitment to it. That’s who they’ll respond to. And that authentic connection will be the reason why.

    Now stop writing things to distract me, Geoff!! ;)

    • Anonymous

      Agreed, particularly on what marks real influence. And then there is the inverse where the Twitter influencer — who has so much gamed around their profile — overvalues their importance. The reality is no one outside of Twitter that cares they are important on Twitter (and important in a small circle at that usually).

      Consider our space. How many people in the nonprofit or marketing sectors is going to recognize almost any of us on the street? Yet people use this new found “fame” to lord over people and their perceived market. Nothing more disgusting than watching a dog eat its own… You get the point.

      OK, now I have a squirrel in my head. LOL.

  • http://johnhaydon.com John Haydon

    Geoff – I’d have to agree with you here. In every campaign I’ve worked on, Twitter delivers less than expected results.

    The areas where it has been effective is in blogger outreach (the % of bloggers who use Twitter is way more than 8%), and in hashtag chats or at least very focused conversational chats.

    Blackbaud did a study last year that asked nonprofits: “Where are you?”. 80% were on Facebook, 43% were on Twitter.

    • Anonymous

      Smell the bubble, feel the bubble. And given its open nature, it does make sense that bloggers are out here. It’s content marketing. Thanks for your continuing readership!

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  • http://www.askeachother.com AskEachOther.com

    Wow, I am very impressed with this article AND all you commenters! Where have you all been all my life?! I’ve been saying a lot of these very things from very early on. I’m actually the Founder of AskEachOther.com, which is turning out to be more of a social network than we even anticipated and I think it’s because we sought out to make something that just had the tools and features that we felt were missing from Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Interestingly enough, through the absense thereof, mostly when examining our own use of Twitter and what we’ve been able to squeeze out of it…we’ve been able to start to figure out why users are seeing value in our site, aside from our initial efforts.

    Sure, Twitter definitely has its purposes and strengths, but it’s a shame the “hype” machines (ie. Media) and speculators make these sites out to be so much more than they actually are.

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