Who’s Listening?

9 Jun 2010 by Randall Helms, 1 Comment »

For brands, Twitter is one of the key social media tools for engaging with consumers. From a marketing perspective, its attraction seems simple enough; gain followers, send out finely-honed marketing messages in 140-character tweets, reap the rewards. The more followers, the better, obviously, and since they chose to follow you, they are clearly receptive to your message, right?

Maybe. Maybe not.

On Twitter, having lots of followers and having a lot of influence are two separate states that do not necessarily overlap, according to a recent paper prepared for the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence by Meeyoung Cha, Hamed Haddadi, Fabricio Benevenuto, and Krishna P. Gummadi. This paper, called “Measuring User Influence in Twitter: The Million Follower Fallacy”, sets out to discover which Twitter users are the most influential, with ‘influence’ being measured through a combination of number of followers, retweets, and mentions.

At the end of their research, the authors came to several interesting conclusions:

  1. Having lots of followers doesn’t necessarily make you influential in terms of retweets and mentions
  2. Influential users tend to be influential across a range of topics
  3. Influence is gained more through concerted effort than through luck or accident

For me, the key takeaways from this report are that Twitter can work for you if you are willing to work at it, and it will only work if you can understand that your true audience is hidden amongst your followers, and that you must make the effort to engage with them and to understand what they are they are thinking. Above all, before embarking on any kind of social media campaign, you must understand what your purpose is. Is it just promotion, or are you looking for insight to help drive business development?

One thing that the authors don’t discuss, but that I have noticed from using Twitter myself, is that not all fans are created equal, and that the raw number of your followers doesn’t really tell you anything about who is actually listening.

As an example, here are the details of someone who started following me last week:

Look at how many people they are following! What is the likelihood that someone like this will even see, let alone act on, your message? It’s not very high.

This is a prime exaple of how follower numbers are not (and can’t be) a perfect metric for understanding the reach of your communications, a point that Meeyoung Cha, one of the co-authors, addresses directly in an interview with Scott Berinato of HBR:

Your results seem to suggest that number of followers does not equal influence and that other factors show that number of follows is in fact a bad indicator of actual influence. That would mean those companies both marketing techniques to increase followers, and the ones paying tweeters with large numbers of followers, are in the wrong business.

I think it would be too strong to claim that follower count is a bad metric. Our claim is that follower count is not sufficient to capture the influence of a user (i.e., the ability of an user to sway the opinions of her followers). It only shows how popular the user is (i.e., the size of her audience). But, as we showed in our paper, retweets and mentions, which measure the audience responsiveness to a user’s tweets, do not correlate strongly with number of followers.

Now a very interesting question would be, “How should one measure influence?” We are afraid that there are no easy answers here. One would have to take a combination of many metrics, including follower count, mentions, and re-tweets. However the hard part is figuring out the relative importance of the component metrics.

This last point is the key – how do you define influence? This can then be extended to how can you define success? To me, what is increasingly clear is that unless you are talking about actual sales figures, most of the quantitative understandings of ‘success’ in social media breed a certain amount of false confidence, and that qualitative methods have a key role to play, making it an absolute necessity for social media marketers to have a certain amount of tolerance for ambiguity.


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One Comment

  1. Hi Randall, another very good post.

    I find that a lot of Social Media are just digital forms of business card collecting, where you collect a lot of contacts that have little value (I’ve got a draw full of cards of people that I’ll probably never, ever have any need to contact). A lot of sales and marketing people – naturally! – berate me for my pessimistic attitude, as they view the world so often in volume. That might work for them, but a lot of people only want to collect valuable contacts, Linked In being a prime example; I decline requests from people that do not operate within my professional/personal spheres. Why? Because I want to avoid the clutter and this is the same with Twitter.

    Speaking from the point of publishing brands, this obsession with Followers is unhealthy. For global brands like the Economist, they have millions of Followers but Follow few people. This shows that only the opinions of leaders are given any consideration, so if you are accepted onto their list, then you get a boost from knowing that your opinion is of value. At the end of the day, if you are a newspaper and your “Followers” are not retweeting or referencing your work, then you are gaining little value – you are not getting access to their audiences. It also shows that what you are saying is either not important, not powerful, or behind the news.

    This is why media brands have to create conversations, to target key readers and spread their views that way. If somebody you admire says, “read this book”, or “watch this programme” then you are more inclined to do so than if you just see a book on their shelf – one of hundreds of books. People are getting wary of PR, and are generally more willing to follow a story if somebody recommends it. Again, this is why targeting “influencers” is so important.

    I know Twitter etiquette dictates that if “Followed you must Follow”, but do I really want to follow OK! magazine or some obviously commercial brands? Not likely. Talk is soooo cheap, and Twitter proves that. Brands really should tap people whose content is retweeted, not someone who has 10,000 followers, of which half are probably random brands looking to get attention.

    I don’t really have any ideas to offer for this post, but I just wanted to say that a lot of people say the same as you have. This is why filters via desktop Twitter apps are so popular, as are lists. It’s about cutting out the noise.

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