Why we need better research on social media

“Statistics are like a drunk with a lampost: used more for support than illumination.” Sir Winston Churchill

Working through publicly available statistics for my series on social media in Germany, I ran into some significant methodological issues.  While I’m really grateful for the data we have, all the reports I have seen raised questions.

One issue is that the data base being used is always limited to a few social media platforms that are getting mainstream media attention such as blogs or social networks, but other platforms with high user volume are completely neglected. If social media is about people using the internet to create and share their thoughts, you can’t stop at video sharing sites, blogs and social networks. How about opinion portals such as Ciao or Qype? You could also put Amazon or Expedia in that category given all the product reviews you can find there. How about knowledge sharing portals such as Yahoo! Answers? And why wouldn’t you include platforms where people not only exchange thoughts and content but also goods? So, why not include Craigslist and eBay? They all live off the idea that users are empowered to connect directly between themselves based on shared interests rather than through a gatekeeper.

Another issue is that there is a lack of distinction between categories used. For instance, does the category “blogging” include micro-blogging platforms such as Twitter? Or is Twitter considered a social network? And since users increasingly tend to aggregate all their activities such as blogging or video sharing on their social network, how can you sensibly compare numbers between these categories?

Finally, most of the reports I have seen suffer from not differentiating between private and professional use of social media. I believe there is a real danger that the wrong conclusions are being drawn from data without knowing if the time was spent on private or professional purposes. While we all know that the high growth of social media was and is mainly driven by consumer’s private interests, I also believe that the professional use of social media is underestimated. At least we need to know more. Just think of the tremendous growth of professional networks such as LinkedIn or Xing.

There are surely more reasons why we need better research on social media, but these are the fundamental ones I encountered in publicly available reports.

Georg Kolb


Number of Germans actively managing a social network profile ranked 6 worldwide

Series on Germany, post #3

Social networks have become a better indicator for social media activities than any other particular tool, since users increasingly tend to aggregate many of their activities such as blogging or video sharing on their social network. That’s one of the more important insights in Universal McCann’s latest report.

According to their latest Social Media Tracker, the number of German active internet users managing a social network profile is at 11.5 m.  That’s rank 6 worldwide, three ranks lower than Germany’s total number of active users, but still pretty high:

  1. China: 111 m
  2. US: 57.8 m
  3. Brazil: 15.6 m
  4. UK: 12.1 m
  5. Korea: 11.9 m
  6. Germany: 11.5 m
  7. France and Japan: 10.2 m
  8. India: 9.6 m

Importance of local networks

It is worth noting, that local networks play a big role in Germany. When Facebook entered the market, local players had a pretty significant head start. In particular “Wer-kennt-wen” (translated “Who-knows-whom”), a network for the mainstream audience now owned by TV network RTL, and studiVZ, a student network now owned by publisher Holtzbrinck, had attracted millions of users. It probably didn’t help that Facebook sued studiVZ in a US court alleging it was just a local clone of Facebook. It probably did help, though, that Facebook was faster with innovation and new functionalities for users. Holger Schmidt reported how Facebook managed to grow its reach by 50 % in an impressive run-up between March and July 2009 and finally take the lead in the German market (see exhibit 1).

The situation is different when it comes to professional networks. With a unique audience of 3.56 m, local leader Xing is eight times bigger than global leader LinkedIn, and Xing is still growing whereas LinkedIn stays flat (see exhibit 2). Twitter doesn’t have a local competitor in Germany. While it’s still on a low level compared to the US, it enjoyed significant growth in 2009. Nielsen found that its reach increased from nearly 1.2 m to just under 2 m between March and July 2009 (see exhibit 3). Of course, there is a difference between reach and active users. Thomas Pfeiffer calculated that Twitter had approx. 28.000 active German users back in March, 145.000 in July. That is rapid growth, albeit on a low level.

See also related posts:

Exhibit 5: Social networks in Germany. Sources: Nielsen: Usage at work and home. Graphics: F.A.Z. Graphics Kaiser. Translated by Georg Kolb

Exhibit 1: Social networks in Germany. Sources: Nielsen: Usage at work and home. Graphics: F.A.Z. Graphics Kaiser. Translated by Georg Kolb

Exhibit 4: Professional networks in Germany. Sources: Nielsen: Usage at work and at home. Graphics: F.A.Z. Graphics Kaiser. Translated by Georg Kolb

Exhibit 2: Professional networks in Germany. Sources: Nielsen: Usage at work and at home. Graphics: F.A.Z. Graphics Kaiser. Translated by Georg Kolb

Exhibit 5: Twitter in Germany. Sources: Nielsen: Usage at work and at home. Graphics: F.A.Z. Graphics Kaiser. Translated by Georg Kolb

Exhibit 3: Twitter in Germany. Sources: Nielsen: Usage at work and at home. Graphics: F.A.Z. Graphics Kaiser. Translated by Georg Kolb


Tweets for hope

First off, a quick apology to my English readers. The first part of this post is in German. Please find an English summary below.

wings of hope

Die Stiftung wings of hope hilft traumatisierten Kriegskindern in Bosnien-Herzegowina, Irak und Palästina/Israel. Kinder sind die beste Quelle der Hoffnung auf notwendige Veränderungen, gerade dort, wo die Fronten am verhärtetsten sind. Genau an dieser Stelle setzt wings of hope an, aber deren großartige Arbeit muss bekannter werden.

Deshalb werde ich für jeden der ersten einhundert Tweets zu diesem Thema 5 Euro an wings of hope spenden.  Das kann ein einfacher Retweet meines Tweets sein oder eine eigene Nachricht. Im letzteren Fall dann bitte einfach das Hashtag #tweetsforhope in den Tweet einbauen, damit ich diese Tweets auch finden kann.

Wer nichts von Twitter weiß oder wissen will, kann natürlich auch einfach auf die Webseite von wings of hope gehen und am besten direkt spenden.

Vielen Dank im Voraus an alle, die mitmachen!

Update 17.12.: Bisher 30 tweets for hope mit insgesamt 21.093 Followern! Gut die Hälfte dieser Follower gehen auf die Konten von PR-Blogger Klaus Eck und Coach Roland Kopp-Wichmann. Dank an alle!

Update 18.12.: Nun schon 47 tweets for hope mit insgesamt  36.679 Followern! Die meisten Follower unter den Neuzugängen verdanken wir diesmal dem Innovator Monty Metzger und dem Karriere-Experten Jochen Mai (Karrierebibel). Aber der Dank geht natürlich wie immer an alle!

Update 20.12.: Jetzt 80 tweets for hope mit insgesamt 60.763 Followern! Dank an alle, besonders aber an den Sevenload-Gründer und Buchautor Ibrahim Evsan und den Blogger Robert Basic, auch wenn er gerade seinen Twitter-Account zum Verkauf angeboten hat (wie schon vor neun Monaten sein Blog).

Update 2 vom 20.12.: Das ging jetzt aber flott! 105 tweets for hope mit insgesamt 66.211 Followern! Dabei hat vor allem Gossip-Twitterer Michael Kneissler den Ausschlag gegeben. Danke! Ich habe auch gleich meine Spende für die ersten hundert Tweets überwiesen.  Gibt es vielleicht jemanden, der die nächsten 100 Tweets sponsern möchte?

English summary: wings of hope is a charitable foundation in Germany helping traumatized children of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq and Palestine/Israel. Children are the best source of hope where change is desparately needed. That’s where wings of hope put the focus of their great work, but they need to be better known. That’s why I will donate 5 Euros for each of the first one hundred tweets on their work using the hashtag #tweetsforhope. Unfortunately, their web site is only in German, so there is no point in spreading this in English language. However, if you still want to be part of it and make a donation – e.g. for the English translation of their site 😉 – , let me know, and I will help you.


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 compete.com, 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