In January, Jenna Wortham wrote an article for the New York Times stating that Justin Bieber’s recent run-ins with the law had exposed Twitter’s “Achilles heel”. Her gripe was demonstrated by the swathes of people she noticed that were tweeting “Why is this news”. “The simplest answer is that it wasn’t — at least not the most important news happening on that particular day,” she said. “But Twitter isn’t really about the most important thing anymore — it stopped being about relevancy a long time ago.” She declared that twitter had reached a “turning point” at which Tweeters have “stopped trying to make the service as useful as possible and are instead trying to distinguish themselves from one another”.
This was followed by several articles and blogs from journalists and social media experts who dismissed Wortham’s piece as a folly of a member of the Twitterati. It was pointed out that Wortham has half a million followers and follows almost four thousand Tweeters. This is not a standard Twitter experience. As of January 2014, Twitter has around 500-600million registered users. Admittedly, I haven’t checked every single one but it’s fair to assume that most of them do not write for the New York Times and don’t live in a bubble of instant response and demonstrable popularity.
The average Twitter user has 208 followers and follows 102 fellow users (figures from 9/2012). The Dunbar Number is often cited as a reference for the number of ‘friends’ one person can have. The number is variously quoted as being around 150. Robin Dunbar said in an interview with the Guardian, “. . . it turned out that this was the size of a typical community in hunter-gatherer societies. And the average village size in the Doomsday Book”. Evidently, 150 is also close to the average number of friends people have on Facebook, which is around 130. Dunbar’s fairly loose definition of a ‘friend’ is “somebody you wouldn’t feel embarrassed to join at the bar in the transit lounge of Hong Kong airport at 3am”. By this theory, a member of the 150 isn’t necessarily a friend you call regularly, rather simply somebody that you know.
Most Twitter users, then, aren’t exposed to the onslaught of abuse, affection, exasperation, humour and boredom tweeted whenever news breaks. Stephen Fry has often likened the use of Twitter by one who has a huge number of connections to standing in a windy forest in autumn and sticking out an arm to grab the nearest leaves. It seems a shame to me that people with a follower count in six or seven figures can never really connect with people on Twitter properly. For every fifty meaningless tweets, there might be one worth reading but it will almost certainly be lost among, for instance, Fry’s 6.5million followers and 51,000 follow count.
But this doesn’t mean you can’t connect with your audience in an effective way.
For businesses of any size, Twitter has become an essential tool with which an enormous potential audience can be reached instantly. Though the brands with the highest follower counts include YouTube with 39.9million, Instagram with 30.7million and Twitter itself with 28.8million, what matters most is how they interact with their audiences. Business Insider compiled the top 20 brands on Twitter, ranked by the influence they have with customers. By cross-referencing a list of the most-followed brands with Fortune’s Top 100 Brands and then narrowing that down to focus on brands that interact with their audience, they came up with their list. At number one was Whole Foods, followed by Starbucks and Samsung US in second and third places respectively (bear in mind that Business Insider is an American website). What this reveals is that the number of followers a company has isn’t the only arbiter of a successful social media campaign. They key lies in what you can offer your followers in return. People like to feel that their tweets are being appreciated and this often requires personal replies. Clearly this would be difficult even for Whole Foods (they have 3.6million followers) but it is easily achievable for small and medium-size businesses.
Basic tips for engaging with your Twitter audience (partly from Twitter themselves, and they should know):
1. Keep it short
Nobody wants to trawl through reams of content. This is why there is a 140 character limit on Twitter. But research shows that shorter tweets result in the best reaction. It’s worth spending time editing your tweet to its shortest possible length, while maintaining the original purpose.
2. Real-time, all the time
Though it’s tempting to schedule all of your business’ tweets at once, this is transparent and can make your audience switch off. Tweeting live about things happening at that time makes you appear on-the-button and, most importantly, human. It is helpful to plan possible content for a future event but you can do this and write in a spontaneous style.
3. Tweet often, but not too often
Filling up a follower’s timeline is the quickest way become unfollowed. Most experts recommend no more than a handful of tweets per day, with gaps between. A lot of businesses use analysis tools to work out when the most effective times to tweet are. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this but over-scrutinising the details can result in a dehumanised social media presence. The best advice seems to be tweet when it feels right.
4. Talk to your @audience
Simply replying to customers and followers is the most effective way to use social media successfully. You don’t need to sell them anything, just make them feel welcome. Tweeting costs nothing so you will be carrying out instantaneous customer support and public relations for free.
5. Look at this!
Just as with short tweets, research proves that images and videos in posts improve the rate of engagement. Images are one of the most retweeted types of post as they require minimal effort from the viewer and offer a visual stimulus for them and their social group. Tweeting images of the workplace and colleagues engaging in work-related hilarity are just other simple ways to humanise your company.