When it comes to laying out your company’s social media strategy, start with this fundamental question: which social media tools are your customers using? While many social media evangelists are quick to adopt and tout the advantages of the latest social media gadget, these “power users” are often too far ahead of the curve to serve as guideposts for businesses anxious to enter the social media fray. Knowing which social media tools your customers use – and how they use them – is a critical first step in forming your social media strategy.
Twitter: By the Numbers
Unfortunately, demographic data and other user information can be hard to come by. As Nick Burcher has noted, official usage data for the popular microblogging site Twitter is generally unavailable, and unofficial numbers from 3rd party sources such as Comscore, Hitwise, Compete, Quantcast, Nielsen and Twitterholic are often contradictory. For example, while Hitwise and Nielsen report that Twitter users are primarily middle-aged men, Compete and Quantcast indicate that younger users are dominant. Sysomos’ June 2009 report, Inside Twitter: An In-depth Look Inside the Twitter World, which analyzed data disclosed on 11.5 million Twitter accounts, found that 65% of Twitter users are under the age of 25, but noted that only 0.7% of users disclosed their age, with younger users showing a higher probability of doing so. As far as the gender breakdown is concerned, different sources produce widely varying results. According to Burcher’s data (from Quantcast), female users outnumber male users 53% to 47%. Box UK puts that ratio at a slightly higher 59% to 41%. However, according to a recent study from Harvard Business Publishing of 300,000 Twitter users , male users have 15% more followers than women, and the average male users is nearly twice as likely to follow another man than a woman. Broken down by geography, Twitter use is still dominated by the U.S. at 62.24%, with the UK following in a distant second at 7.87%, according to the Sysomos study. The biggest Twitter populations are concentrated in North American urban centers, with New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, San Francisco and Boston leading the way (again, according to Sysomos). According to HubSpot’s State of the Twittersphere report, U.S. cities dominate the list of Top 20 Twitter locations. One demographic factor on which virtually all sources agree is the racial composition of the service. According to Quantcast numbers, 82% of users are Caucasian (while a Pear Analytics study puts that number at 78%).
As confusing as the demographic user data is, the picture is complicated by the question of usage. According to a recent Harris Interactive poll, only 5% of Americans say they are currently using Twitter. Although Twitter is a media darling and continues to enjoy phenomenal traffic growth, including among young users,two important indexes of usage – activity and reach – suggest that business enthusiasm for the services should be restrained. The Harvard Business Publishing study found that
“Twitter’s usage patterns are also very different from a typical on-line social network. A typical Twitter user contributes very rarely. Among Twitter users, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is one. This translates into over half of Twitter users tweeting less than once every 74 days.”
The study found that the top 10% of Twitter users account for 90% of tweets, compared to usage statistics for other social networks, where the top 10% account for roughly 30% of contributed content. As the study concludes, Twitter “resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.” Similarly, the Sysmos report found that 85.3% of Twitter users update less than once a day, while only 1.13% of users update more than 10 times a day. More than half of Twitter users hadn’t posted a status update in the past week. According to a study by Box UK which drew from a random sampling of 83,628 Twitter users, 22% had never tweeted, and 58% had tweeted fewer than 10 times. HubSpot’s report reveals a few other interesting facts about user activity (or inactivity, as the case seems to be):
- 54.8% have never tweeted
- 55.5% of users are not following anyone
- 52.71 % have no followers
To put this activity data into perspective, consider comparable numbers from Facebook. According to self-reported statistics, nearly half of all Facebook’s 250 million active users log on daily (48%) and 20% of users update their statuses at least once a day.
As sobering as the activity data is, the limited reach of the average Twitter user is an even more important indicator of the utility of the service for businesses. While HubSpot reports that more than half of Twitter users aren’t following anyone and have no followers, Syomos reports that 92.4% of users follow fewer than 100 people, and 97.8% follow fewer than 400. Likewise, Sysomos reports that 93.6% of users have fewer than 100 followers, and 98% have fewer than 400. The Box UK survey reports that 53% of Twitter users have 10 followers or fewer. Again, a comparison to Facebook puts these numbers into perspective. The average Facebook user has 120 friends on the site, which approaches the theoretical limit of the Dunbar number, the cognitive limit to the number of people with which one can maintain stable social relationships.
Implications for Business
The demographic data for Twitter is admittedly ambiguous, but a few basic conclusions may be drawn. First, female users have a slight numerical advantage over male users, but as the Harvard Business Publishing study suggests, male users have more influence (as measured by followers) than females. Although the technology is dominated by 18-34 year olds, the upper half of this group is dominant, although the younger half are starting to adopt the technology with increasing frequency. However, younger users have not broken into the ranks of the most popular or most frequent users. Whether and to what extent young users begin to embrace Twitter in the same way they’ve adopted Facebook and other social networking tools remains to be seen. As with many other social media services, the Twitter audience is urban, English-speaking, and primarily Caucasian.
The Twitter usage statistics – in terms of both activity and reach – reveal important insights for business. One of the primary advantages of social media participation for business is the ability to tap into user-driven social activity. However, as the Harvard Business Publishing study concludes, Twitter currently functions more like a traditional media outlet than a genuine social media tool. The most influential users (again, those with the largest following and the most significant user activity) tend to be technology leaders and celebrities. Peer-to-peer social activity is limited, and the reach of typical users is extremely limited.
This is not to suggest that Twitter isn’t a useful tool for businesses. Conversations about brands and products occur everyday on Twitter (see, for example, @dooce vs. #Maytag), and Twitter Search offers a simple way to track customer sentiment. Learning to listen to customer feedback and effectively respond to complaints should be one of the highest priorities for brands, and Twitter can facilitate this process. Moreover, brands with sufficient cache and a loyal following can utilize the service as way to keep in contact with customers. However, attracting a following may be difficult, and users are unlikely to engage brands that fail to provide added value beyond typical mass communication messages. Treating Twitter as another broadcasting channel is unlikely to reap the positive benefits businesses are looking for from social media.