“Twitter hype punctured by study”

Checking the news this morning, I found this story on the BBC homepage:

Micro-blogging service Twitter remains the preserve of the few, despite the hype surrounding it, according to research.

Just 10% of Twitter users generate more than 90% of the content, a Harvard study of 300,000 users found.

Estimates suggest it now has more than 10 million users and is growing faster than any other social network.

However, the Harvard team found that more than half of all people using Twitter update their page less than once every 74 days.

And most people only ever “tweet” once during their lifetime, the researchers found.

“Based on the numbers, Twitter is certainly not a service where everyone has seen it has instantly loved it,” said Bill Heil, a graduate from Harvard Business School who carried out the work.

On a typical online social network, he said, the top 10% of users account for 30% of all production.

“This implies that Twitter’s resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network,” the team wrote in a blog post.

Silent crowds

Twitter is a social networking website where people can post messages of 140 up to characters – known as “tweets” – that can be seen by other users who subscribe to their feed.

Its growth has been described as “explosive” and has become the poster child of social networking sites, particularly amongst media companies.

Twitter is a broadcast medium rather than an intimate conversation with friends
Bill Heil

Recent figures from research firm Nielsen Online show that visitors to the site increased by 1,382%, from 475,000 to seven million, between February 2008 and February 2009. It is thought to have grown beyond 10 million in the last 4 months.

By comparison, Facebook – one of the most popular social networking sites by number of visitors – has 200 million active users and grew by 228% during the same period.

Research by Nielsen also suggests that many people give the service a try, but rarely or never return.

Earlier this year, the firm found that more than 60% of US Twitter users fail to return the following month.

“The Harvard data says very, very few people tweet and the Nielsen data says very, very few people listen consistently,” Mr Heil told BBC News.

‘Super user’

However, said Mr Heil, the most striking result was that so few people used the service to publish information, preferring instead to be passive consumers.

For example, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is one.

“Twitter is a broadcast medium rather than an intimate conversation with friends,” he said.

“It looks like a few people are creating content for a few people to read and share.”

Some “super users” can have thousands or even hundreds of thousands of followers.

Currently, the most popular person to follow on Twitter is the movie star Ashton Kutcher who has over two million followers.

However, the service bills itself as a way to “communicate and stay connected” with “friends, family and co-workers”.

“The Twitter management need to decide if this is a problem,” said Mr Heil.

“And if they decide it is, how they will tweak Twitter to become more acceptable to the average user?”

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For those of you considering using Twitter as a marketing medium, this article’s message seems a bit ambivalent.  While there are fewer people using Twitter as a truly ‘social’ networking site, people are using it to consume new information about people, places, and organisations.

The other thing to consider is that Twitter has become so hyped because it appears to the be site of choice for celebrities and ‘media types’, and these people tend to be key influencers, both informally through their friendship circles and formally, through journalism and broadcast media. While not everyone is on Twitter, a lot of powerful people are, and their capacity to influence could make Twitter a worthwhile venture for your business.

However, as with all web 2.0 marketing, you need to make sure that you focus the majority of your time and resources on the promotions that will offer the greatest returns, and for that, I would recommend blogging as a far simpler and more universally accessible option.

Please do leave comments here if you disagree, or if you have Twitter success stories to share!

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