A Follower Is Not the Same as a Customer

To watch the current buzz on Twitter (which I do use @victor_cheng), you would think it’s the latest thing since sliced bread.

It’s definitely hard to ignore anything that appears to be growing like a rocket. But other than the gazillions social media “experts” who have popped up in the last 90 days, the real question and only question I care about is anyone making any money directly or indirectly from twitter?

I can definitely see the value of twitter as a market research tool — to keep tabs on what customers are sayin.

(Hint: Just go to http://search.twitter.com and search for your name, company name, or brand. It’s kind of interesting to see what others are saying about you. And it’s an absolute necessity if they are saying bad things about you… so you can do damage control).

But I’ve been wondering who, if anyone, is making big money with twitter… and what are they actually doing?

I can’t tell you how many bio’s I’ve read of social media expert who’s #1 claim to fame is “how many followers” they have.

Listen:  A follower is NOT the same thing as a customer.

It doesn’t cost the follower much to be a follower. But it definitely takes a much bigger commitment to be a customer.

And in my humble opinion, the value of twitter as a marketing medium (as opposed to a strictly social/entertainment medium) is whether or not it makes numbers on the profit and loss statement move (preferably in the more profitable direction!)

In times of extreme hype, I have always favored looked at the facts and quantitative analysis.

This is a old habit I picked up when I was at McKinsey & Company. While looking at quantitative information is not the end all be all, it is very useful to understand what’s has actually and factually been going on.

I was very excited to read Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski analysis of a random sample of 300,000 twitter users (taken in May 2009) and their tweeting and following habits.

In their quantitative analysis posted on the Harvard Business School Publishing blog, (Full post: New Twitter Research: Men Follow Men and Nobody Tweets) their rigorous analysis revealed several interesting conclusions which I’ve highlighted here:

If you rank the 300,00 twitter users from most active tweeters to least active, here what you find:

1) the midpoint (or median) user tweets 1 time in the lifetime of their twitter account.

2) the least active 25% tweets 0 times in the lifetime of the account

3) the 75% most active user, has tweeted 4 times in the lifetime of the account.

In other words, for 75% of twitter users, they barely get past the infamous tweet:

“This is my first tweet… whatever that means!”

Conclusion #1: If “social media” is defined as many people interacting with many people (equally parts “talking” and “listening”), then twitter is factually not a social media from the average user’s perspective.

Here’s the other big insight:

The top 10% most active twitter users, account for 90% of all tweets.

This definitely mimics my experience with twitter. While I follow 80 or 90 people, when I look at my timeline I see 4 -5 people I follow tweet multiple times per hour!

Compared to other social media networks, the top 10% account for 30% of usage.

Conclusion #2: In terms of usage patterns, twitter more closely resembles a broadcast medium (say like a radio talk show) than a social medium.

This is not to say that twitter is not or might not be a useful marketing tool. But given this information it makes it easier for “return on investment” oriented business owners (oh the horror of the dreaded “ROI” word…) to figure out how to best use (and perhaps in certain cases not use) twitter.

My personal early conclusion (and I do reserve the right to be wrong or at least change my mind on this) is that becoming an active twitter user most closely resembles having your own radio talk show…sure it’s a show that runs all day long in short 140 character segments,

But it’s one guy/gal (the talk show host) who does most of the talking, while most everyone else (the listeners/followers) are just listening.

From time to time, you let one of the listeners (ahem… I mean followers) call in and interact with you while everyone else listens in, but the ratio is the few with the megaphone talking to the many who just listen.

From a marketing standpoint, does having your own radio talk (or text) show make sense?

Here’s the question to ask, if you have your own radio show but nobody is listening, does it do you any good?

The value of the radio show is not it the show, it’s in the listeners… and whether you have the ability to draw them in and get them to pay attention.

If you are a high profile business owner or some type of industry celebrity, it probably does make sense to have some sort of way to broadcast to your “fans” / “customers”.

So for any Hollywood celebrity or sports star, tweeting is a no brainer. It’s a way to connect with your fan base and keep them interested until your next movie or game is on.

If you’re trying to be an industry celebrity or guru of some sort, would it make sense to have a radio show or twitter equivalent?  It probably would. Those who publish/broadcast are perceived as the experts/celebrity and find it easier to get attention.

But if your business does not fall into one of these categories, is it worth the time and effort to tweet to get leads and clients?

And more importantly, given the amount of time twitter and other forms of social media take is the most profitable use of your time? Or is some other marketing method more profitable per hour of time spent?

I know there’s the darn ROI (return on investment) thing again… geez, shoot me for actually caring about ROI.

This IS a question worth asking. And sadly, I don’t see enough people asking it… and even fewer giving a fact-based answer to the question.

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