Twitter is…

twitter_stockxpertcom_id34401621_jpg_2b99f135618055055f3ee33e169b89b7There has been much talk about what Twitter is, and many people also tried to define dos and don’ts for its use, be it for personal or business purposes.  I have certainly learned a lot from these efforts, in particular from those with good ideas such as Chris Brogan or those with a strong analytic sense such as Jeremiah Owyang.

It is symptomatic, though, that people talking about Twitter often have opposing views, the simple reason being that it is still emerging and can be many things to many people. So, I welcomed David Pogue’s take (which was inspired by Twitter’s co-founder Evan Williams) that Twitter is what you make it. David wrote his article from the perspective of an individual user, but I think his statement is also true for corporate applications. More about that in a minute.

What counts is that Twitter is growing fast. According to, it recently reached 14 m users in the US, that is up 76.8 % just within the last month! The Wall Street Journal stated that Twitter goes mainstream. This kind of message usually makes geeks hop off and watch out for the next train to be boarded. And, lo and behold, Steve Rubel just announced that Twitter is peaking. True or not, given that social media has become a global phenomenon, it is always prudent not to rely on the US only. In the German speaking part of the web for example, Twitter is far from going mainstream and far from peaking either. A recent estimate says that there are approx. 27,000 active users speaking German. While this might not be a big number, these people are still worth watching, because they are often highly opinionated and highly networked. Chances are that someone with hundreds of followers on Twitter also has hundreds of friends on other networks and syndicates her Twitter updates to them. Equally important, Twitter users are increasingly the first to break news. Even with “only” 27.000 active users, it’s still pretty likely that some of them will be closer to the next newsworthy event than any journalist can be. Spectacular events such as the emergency landing on the Hudson illustrated that in an impressive way.

twitter-home-pageSo, what does this mean to Corporate Communications? Let’s start by quickly recalling what Twitter actaully does: it is a web site where you can publish short messages of up to 140 characters (“tweets”). Other users can subscribe to these messages and reply to them, publicly or in private. As a result, users are observing a stream of short news from the people they follow, either on their PC or on their mobile phone.

While this is a seemingly simple service, its use for corporate purposes is not that obvious. Here are a couple of observations on what it can be or has been for others, but ultimately it will depend on you what you make it and how it adds value to your business. As far as I can see, three areas of applications have emerged:

1. Radar: What is true for all social media is in particular true for Twitter: you should watch, if and how people are talking about you, simply because it can have an impact on the reputation of your brand. Whenever there is something happening with your business, be it good or bad, Twitter might be the first source where it’s echoed, because it works so easy and fast. It is like  a newsticker sourced by the crowd. For example, when pain killer brand Motrin came out with a controversial ad targeted at moms, outraged mothers instantly vented their disapproval on Twitter. If there isn’t any mention of your brand just yet, that might change quickly, so I would recommend to make sure that it is covered by your regular social media monitoring. However, it is a different question, if and how you might want to engage with Twitter users. That depends on the results of your monitoring, but also on the profile of Twitter users relevant to your business. If you do decide to engage with them, you might want to consider the following options – or find a new way.

2. Monologue: One of the early myths of the social media community was that it is always about dialogue and conversation. Interestingly, some of the more successful business applications of Twitter work as a monologue. In fact, much of what’s happening on Twitter works as a syndicated stream of monologues. It sometimes can even be disturbing when two people start a conversation that is only relevant to them, but syndicated to all their followers. Anyway, some businesses use Twitter as a newsticker for their stakeholders. It doesn’t come as a surprise that this approach is especially relevant to news businesses such as CNN. But this also works for any business that has news to share which fit this particular format. E.g. Dell has found that for them Twitter works pretty well with sale alerts. In December last year, InternetNews reported that over a period of 18 months the computer company had made $ 1 m in revenue using Twitter to announce their special deals. The social piece in this kind of application is that Twitter users forward (“retweet”) the news to their followers. Twitter is not only about monologues, though.

3. Dialogue: Some companies have found that Twitter can work for customer service. Cable company Comcast is one example, the airline JetBlue another. For them Twitter is a source to identify complaints or questions that might cause damage to their brand, but also the platform to address them. When they respond to an issue all other customers already following them on Twitter will see the response and benefit from it or add another request. The result is a lively connection to customers that didn’t exist before. The same channel can also be used to ask customers what they think of specific offers or ideas. This kind of live search is certainly one of the most fascinating aspects of Twitter. If the inquirer has a large enough following,  the users usually respond to requests like this with incredible speed and creativity. It’s like an instant poll with real-time responses. I would have to agree with Michael Arrington that Twitter’s ability to help brands finding customer opinions and to help customers finding news on brands in real-time are enough reason for Google’s rumored interest in an acquisition.

With all that, is Twitter here to stay? I don’t know about the company, since they are still working out their business model and negotiating deals with Google or others. It currently is also magnified by a remarkable media hype that will eventually come to an end. But I do believe that social networks based on short messages do have a future: for the benefits I have outlined above and for those that are to be discovered yet, but also for the short message culture we already established across the globe. Igor Schwarzmann pointed me to this striking fact: in June 2008, there were 2.7 bn mobile phone users worldwide, 1.8 bn of them actively using SMS which means that globally there are twice as many active SMS users as there are active users of e-mail. Give them access to the Internet and they are ready for Twitter! Another way it could go is that important social networks such as Facebook or LinkedIn build on the twitterlike “status updates” they already have by adding features for mobile use.  There are already some users “cheating on Twitter with Facebook” for the more integrated experience full-fledged social networks can provide.

Georg Kolb


Social media as a global phenomenon – recent discoveries

Two years ago, media agency Universal McCann started the most extensive global survey on social media I am aware of. Since then they went through three waves, each time significantly broadening their data base:

Wave 1 – September 2006 – 7,500 Internet users – 15 countries
Wave 2 – June 2007 – 10,000 Internet users – 21 countries
Wave 3 – March 2008 – 17,000 Internet users – 29 countries
Wave 4 – scheduled for late 2008

The 80 page report on wave 3 is downloadable for free.

Here are the highlights of the study as summarised by the authors:

  • Social media is a global phenomenon happening in all markets regardless of wider economic, social and cultural development. If you are online you are using social media
  • Asian markets are leading in terms of participation, creating more content than any other region.
  • All social media platforms have grown significantly over the three Waves
    • Video clips are the quickest growing platform, up from 31 % penetration in Wave 1 to 83 % in Wave 3
  • 57 % have joined a Social Network, making it the number one platform for creating and sharing content
    • 55 % of users have uploaded photos
    • 22 % of users have uploaded videos
  • The widget economy is real
    • 23 % of social network users have installed an application
    • 18 % of bloggers have installed applications in their blog templates
  • Blogs are a mainstream media world-wide and as a collective rival any traditional media
    • 73 % have read a blog
  • The blogosphere is becoming increasingly participatory, now 184 m bloggers world-wide
    • The number one thing to blog about is personal life and family
  • China has the largest blogging community in the world with 42 m bloggers, more than the US and Western Europe combined
  • Social media impacts your brand’s reputation
    • 34 % post opinions about products and brands on their blog
    • 36 % think more positively about companies that have blogs

These findings are truly impressive. However, it’s important to put them into the right context. With 17,000 people surveyed the sample is huge, but it only represents “active Internet users” as defined by Universal McCann: people aged 16-54 who are using the Internet every day or every other day. As a result, when looking at the findings more specifically, two parameters should be considered: 1.) the Internet penetration of the respective markets, 2.) the share of the sample in the overall population aged 16-54. Thankfully both sets of numbers are provided in the report.

Also, while the usage of social media tools went up across the board, it’s interesting to see how the pace of adoption varied between the tools. Watching video clips has passed reading blogs as the most often used tool, even if the speed of it’s growth went down a bit. The latter doesn’t really come as a surprise, since the reach of video clips is now at the high level of 83 %. By contrast, downloading podcasts, creating social network profiles and subscribing to RSS feeds have all significantly accelerated their pace since the last wave, albeit on a much lower level than watching video clips (see graph “Reach over time”).

There are also interesting shifts in the development of some markets. I felt encouraged when looking at the country-by-country results, because the findings confirmed the analysis I presented in the first post on this blog: if we want to understand the development of the new publics in the world of social media, we not only need to consider the underlying technologies, but their interdependency with the economic framework and the socio-political environment. Here are just some anecdotal observations.

For instance, South Korea commands the largest broadband network on the globe, their Internet penetration (70.2 %) is among the highest. There is no doubt that this formidable technology infrastructure helped to make South Koreans the world leading blog readers (92.1 %), blog writers (71.7 %) and keen social networkers (70.3 %). However, technolgy alone doesn’t explain the level of participation in Asian markets. E.g. China’s internet infrastructure is not as developed, with 12.3 % the penetration is among the lowest on the planet, and users are being observed and censored. And yet the Chinese are on rank 3 as blog readers (88.1 %) and writers (70.3 %) and significantly above the global average (58.8 %) as social networkers (64 %). By comparison, the Dutch enjoy the highest internet penetration of all markets surveyed by Universal McCann, but they are below average (70.2 %) as blog readers (67.7 %) and way off as blog writers (27.1 %), then again their participation in social networks (61.4 %) is above the global average (58.8 %). So, there certainly is a correlation between the socio-political environment and the adoption of specific social media patterns. You can’t explain this with technology only.

Another layer of complexity is added by changes of country patterns over time. Just check out my fellow countrymen, the Germans! They used to be notorious blogging laggards, but finally they seem to take the Autobahn. Within less than a year, the share of active Internet users in Germany reading blogs more than tripled (see red circles), the share of German blog writers more than quadrupled (purple circles). No such development can be found in France which used to be the by far leading blogging nation in Europe. As a matter of fact, in terms of blog readership France is now matched by both Italy and Spain, and in terms of blog writers, Spain has taken a 10 % lead over France. Given all these differences and the rapid pace of the development, we need to map things out again and again as we go. It is a new Age of Discovery indeed.

There are many more insights to be found in Universal McCann’s global social media tracker, but I will close with one final observation. People are looking for places where they can unite all the things they are doing on the Internet and share it with their friends. For many users this place is currently their social network. However, social networks will only be able to keep this privileged position, if they become open enough for users to share whatever they created and whereever they created it. Otherwise people will find other places for their social ecosystem. Early adopters are already exploring social aggregators like FriendFeed that allow to present all their own and their friends’ content in one view. More discoveries to be expected!

Georg Kolb