The Twitter Paradox

There’s an old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Twitter is a paradox that redefines that old saying to, “If it’s broke, don’t fix it, because it works.”

For all intents and purposes, Twitter shouldn’t work, yet 200 million people (and bots) have created accounts in this thriving information egosystem. Now, news no longer breaks, it Tweets. Celebrities use it daily to connect directly with fans and also augment their income streams. Politicians and governments use Twitter to communicate with constituents and one another. Everyday people rely on Twitter to find information and share experiences. And for those more “influential” Twitter users, connectedness pays off in the form rewards, recognition, and compensation.

Twitter has evolved into a human seismograph that channels the pulse of business, politics, entertainment, news, and culture into the mobile phones and PCs and defines of our connected society. Twitter is a public confessional where screens become the window to self-expression, validation, recognition, with each contributing to a digital form of self confidence. And it is this new assurance that guides our actions in the real world. I Tweet therefore I am…whatever I want to become.

Indeed, Twitter shouldn’t work, but it does. What started as a hybrid public messaging service meets social network, is now a flourishing information network where people connect and disconnect based on interests and fleeting moments of intellectual, sophomoric and parallel intimacy. As such, Twitter forces the evolution of social networking from social graphs to interest graphs, where people are not only connected to those they know, but also those who share their interests.

While it’s often chided for its ability to assemble and syndicate irrelevant, irresponsible, and questionable activity, Twitter excels in aligning relevance with those who understand how to filter streams to their advantage. And this is where things start to get interesting, as I don’t believe we’ve seen Twitter’s true impact on our digital and IRL culture.

Twitter’s Awareness vs. Adoption

The state of the Twitterverse is in flux. Capturing its shape, genetic makeup and direction is akin to measuring the development of a baby in a womb. It’s growing, quickly, and even though we know that a baby will arrive and grow into a human being, we never know exactly who this person will ultimately become nor can we be certain of its personality through each of the development stages.

Twitter’s challenge with awareness versus adoption has plagued the fledgling company since the beginning. One of the top Google searches for Twitter after all is “I don’t get Twitter.”

The Pew Internet & American Life Project announced in June 2011 that Twitter usage rose from 8% of US Internet users in Fall 2010 to 13% in May 2011. Representing an impressive 62% spike in adoption, many question the significance of the bump in its migration toward mainstream adoption. As eMarketer recently wrote, Twitter has a problem with Awareness vs. Usage.

Twitter’s awareness has greatly benefited from the nonstop media attention it receives due to controversial and high profile users. Citing Arbitron and Edison research, we see that 92% of consumers ages 12 and up are familiar with Twitter, but only 8% actually use it. According to this graph, Twitter has an adoption problem. In contrast, Facebook adoption ranks at 57.1% of internet users as stated by eMarketer.

As we know, numbers don’t lie. eMarketer also projects that Twitter advertising revenues will soar from $140 million in 2011 to $225 million in 2012.  In contrast, the once bursting place for friends, MySpace, will generate $184 million in ad revenue this year. As such, Twitter is focusing on improving (and defining) the user experience with Jack Dorsey rejoining the fold. And the company is building a sizable sales force. But even at this moment, Twitter has a model it can sell against. Since the launch of its Promoted products line, Twitter has worked with 600 advertisers on 6,000 campaigns. Twitter’s director of revenue Adam Bain puts things into perspective for optimists and skeptics alike, “Eighty percent of those marketers come back and buy from us again.”

Now, the cost of a Promoted Trends on Twitter has jumped from $100,000 to $120,000 per day. Promoted Accounts and Promoted Tweets are auction-based and a self-service model is due to arrive before the end of the year. Bain suggests that Twitter provides higher engagement levels that outperform not only traditional digital advertising products, but also Facebook ads.

In an interview with ClickZ, Bain reinforced the value of Promoted Products, “Paying $4 for a follower is a pittance because the ROI is insane. Because again once they have a follower, they can keep marketing to that guy as many times as they want without worrying about where they are across the web or what kind of mindframe they’re in.”

Certainly this is no mistake, but it is something that again, wasn’t anticipated. Attention has migrated to the stream and as we’re learning, that while money doesn’t grow on trees, it does in fact grow on Tweets.

Recently Mark Suster wrote about how the future of advertising will be integrated. In his post, Suster shared work by usability guru Jakob Nielsen that shows through heat maps where our eyes are focused.  Attention zeroes in on text and not the banners around it, thus introducing an era of banner blindness.

And in social media, banner blindness is equally prevalent. Facebook Ads sell against interests and people you know. Twitter sells products that appear within your line of sight – the stream, your new attention dashboard.

The Twitter Paradox is fascinating to study. I don’t believe mainstream adoption is a metric that matters to Twitter or to those who understand its benefits. Surely mass adoption is important to investors. But as a human network, we make the world a much smaller place, creating a global culture that connects people to information and events as they happen. And, through a stroke of fate or democratized serendipity, people effect how information travels and how events unfold. But at a minimum, Twitter has become an infinite well of incredible insight and intelligence and for that, it is already an indispensable service to businesses, governments, educators, and anyone who is impacted by the words and impressions of others.

Connect with Brian Solis on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook


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  • http://5minaday.tumblr.com Craig Kelley

    I agree, I think people have definitely put up blinders for ads, including Google adwords.  Time be very creative!

  • http://www.webwisedom.com/ Mike Wise

    No doubt about it: Twitter is the hardest SN to ‘get’. But your point about the info-stream is spot-on. IMHO, hashtags and keywords are what separate Twitter from the Linkedin, Facebook, and the rest. It’s also a simple way to keep your Blog fresh and current between posts.  Also like it for the positive impact it’s had on my written communication – brevity. Thanks for the post and correlating the info. Tweeted.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Through brevity there’s clarity!

  • http://twitter.com/brenny B Ganesan

    The heatmap infograph was very illuminating.  We’ve known for a few years now thru human factors work that techie readers that come to developerWorks completely ignore the paid ads.   Adsense being the least intrusive meant that banners were going to get us nothing.

    Thanks for sharing the twitter ad revenue info too.  Good read. 

  • http://www.BillHibbler.com Bill Hibbler

    I know there are a lot of variables involved but, in general, do you think these 6,000 advertisers are getting a good ROI at $4 per lead? I’d love to see some case studies on these advertisers. Thanks for a great post, Brian.

  • Joanne Maly

    Brian, your thoughts mirror many of mine. I find that I use Twitter as a research / information / business tracking tool “often”. With that goal in mind, following industry leaders and joining in ‘the’ conversation is important. But… I fall into the camp as well that says “I find the platform frustrating, tiring, mundane.” For instance, the same industry leaders I follow during the week, tell me they are “‘drink’ as a skunk” in Bar A on Thursday night and upset with a ref’s call on Wed. (I’m guessing that ‘drink’ is the Twitter term for ‘drunk’ as I see that use often on ‘bar’ nights. My gut says that Twitter will “evolve” into a social medium that then “evolves” to a two-party (or at least a two-platform) format. Namely, there will be a Twitter platform “A” that will please those who want to share that they are having a bad day .. or that the car in front of them just cut them off … and the other Twitter camp ‘B’ for tweets that ‘really’ relate to business, if I am in fact, following you as a business account. In the interim, I feel like we have a case of “The Three Cases of Eve” on our laptops throughout the day. The Twitter Paradox indeed.

    • http://website-in-a-weekend.net/ Dave Doolin

      Joanne, this is priceless and reflects some of my sentiment as well: ”I find the platform frustrating, tiring, mundane.” 

      However, I also find Twitter to be exhilarating, encouraging, and occasionally, sublime.

      I’m on record here as temporarily abstaining from Twitter, but it’s not because I think it’s irrelevant. Just having to fill Twitter time with other stuff at the moment. For example, processing email… =) 

      But I am definitely paying close attention and watching it evolve.

      One thing I really appreciate about Brian is he is paying such close attention to all this I can follow along and catch the high points until I’m ready to jump back in. (With apologies to Ze Frank…) Brian is tweeting so I don’t have to. Thanks Brian! 

  • http://www.salesdujour.com Gary S. Hart

    @google-b5176a21b4ef2d5ad18a3a9604301bc5:disqus Business chats are on the rise, #B2BChat, #SalesChat, and #LeadershpChat to name a few. Information sharing and trading is my primary use. Michael Dell responded today to a tweeted blog post from a top sales consultant that picked on a poor Dell sales call he received. 

    Relationship generation is very big in the B2B community and has been excellent for me. Most of those relationships have been converted to LinkedIn connections.

    The peripheral what I ate and drank stuff is very rare in the circle I follow and is usually conversational.

    As younger people enter the business world we will see B2B growth areas are relationship generation, topical chatting, and information sharing. Just my observations and experience.

    • http://website-in-a-weekend.net/ Dave Doolin

      “Most of those relationships have been converted to LinkedIn connections. ”

      Yes, I have found this to be true myself. Perhaps “many” rather than “most” in my case, but it’s an important “many.”

  • http://www.sharelomer.com SharelOmer

    Hi Brian,
    What a gr8 post, that take us off the Twitter bubble and show us in high level where it stands compared to other socia media networks and coopered to previous years…
    I believe that Twitter can be the best way to build relationship (if the person you want to build relationship with is on Twitter), its ease of use and “non formal” workflow make relationship building more simple..

    a lot of users dont get Twitter.. however for business, it can be an emerging channel for finding leads and cultivate them…

    Social media has taken our life by storm… the mix between FB, Twitter, LI, Mail together, enable you to really “know” a person, and build with him really powerful relationship without meeting him at all.. making communication more human :)

    Thanks for this insightful and powerful post, 
    Sharel

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  • http://twitter.com/susanborst susan borst

    Great recap and new perspectives on the paradox question that’s receiving so much buzz.  I particularly like the heat map images of where people are looking.  I’ve always liked that as a research tool.  Thanks for posting (and to @SharelOmer for tweeting it and directing me here!) 

    • http://www.sharelomer.com SharelOmer

      A great post indeed… i love how Brian lets us get his insights, while backing it up with facts… a journalist work that really make a difference. thanks for sharing.

  • Anonymous

    Twitter has become the best place to make a solid connection with hard-to-reach people and resources.
    Recently I had problems with Comcast and Verizon. I got nowhere with the phone. But after posting the stories to my blog and then tweeting the companies, I got help *fast.* 

    On a more benign note, some of the top Internet marketers run their own social marketing and it’s a great place to get past their gatekeepers.

  • Wayne McEvilly

    I don’t require anyone to convince me of the value of twitter, but this post assisted me in understandstanding the dimensions of the value I receive from this daily ritual I perform. I go forward on 90% hunch/inspiration and only about 10% rational thought – twitter is a mechanism highly conducive to the intuitive process. I liked this:  ’I Tweet therefore I am…whatever I want to become.’ I’ve often thought the first part of that Cartesian formula re-cast, but really it is the second half that was a new light: ‘…whatever I want to become…’ I truly believe that my use of twitter can assist my becoming what I truly am and have always wanted to see emerge onto the stage of ‘my world’. 
    Wayne
    p.s.
    Brian – Good job! (but you no doubt already know this quite well:-)

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  • http://twitter.com/MargaretMolloy Margaret Molloy

    Brian: Truly an excellent post.  Great insights and data. While Twitter is a powerful tool, like any data source, we need to be careful to “diversify” our follows or  sources. Twitter allows us to hear from my views.  As citizens and business people, we need to take advantage of that capacity or risk of living in one “echo chamber”.  @MargaretMolloy

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  • http://www.extremejohn.com Extreme John

    Amazing facts and figures about Twitter. I’m quite surprised with how Twitter falls on the aspect of awareness vs. usage and yet they managed to have higher engagement levels that outperform other online marketing strategies. It’s good that Twitter is promoting better customer engagement more than gaining higher income. 

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  • http://www.twitter.com/johncade John Cade

    This is the best analysis of Twitter I have come across. Great work.

  • http://twitter.com/ChaseBC85 Chase Cornett

    I seem to be a little late to this conversation, but I would love to put in my endorsement if I could. I myself have been trying to find the most effective way to be an influential force to my followers on Twitter and across social media channels. Twitter is a different animai all on its own. I never would have guessed that micromedia would find the success that it has. Now all I have to do I guess if figure out how to be interesting! 

  • Anonymous

    To be accurate, Twitter is one of the top results for the query “I don’t get” not the other way round.  Still, I think Twitter is a far more useful tool than Facebook or any other social network. Hopefully they won’t wreck Tweetdeck.

  • http://twitter.com/MissionEngage Gabrielle

    Glad to hear Jack Dorsey is rejoining the Twitter team to increase the usability of Twitter. I agree that advertising is becoming more integrated and all of the social networks are getting more creative with it, it seems. It’s the new way to reach people where they’re at and in real time. Enjoyed the way you presented this information, Brian.

  • http://twitter.com/jjmullz Jonathan Mulligan

    Great article, one of the best I’ve read on Twitter.

    I was told today in a social media session that the Twitter ‘bubble’ would almost inevitably burst – I disagreed then and more so after reading this.

    That said, I wonder how many of the followers gained from a promoted product are just media types interested in how others are using the channel, or indeed how many are bots.  Neither are likely to be in the mindframe for coversion.

  • http://twitter.com/MirrorDotMe mirror.me

    One of the greatest things about Twitter is that there are so many different ways you can use it, and it’s completely up to the user to decide how Twitter can suit his or her interests. And as this blog post points out, Twitter is an incredible platform for meeting people with shared interests and making genuine connections that can turn into sustained digital relationships. I couldn’t even tell you how many of my Twitter friends on my personal account have become real life friends or mentors!

    Still, it can be hard to make those connections if you’re not used to how Twitter works, and it can be difficult to see past the noise. And not even just the noise, but the millions of interests expressed that you don’t necessarily share!

    Mirror.me is a good tool for people who want to connect with people in their interest communities and learn more about their followers. We’re all about building communities around interests and substantiating those relationships!

    –Jenn at Mirror.me

  • Anonymous

    Ha – “egosystem” – love that. The proof of how personally connected we are to the ownership of our social media was when the #kloutapocalypse happened the other week and people were truly horrified to wake up to find out they were far less influential than the day before.

    Fantastic post.

    ~Tammy, CEO @MarketMeSuite:twitter

  • http://www.3hatscommunications.com/blog/ davinabrewer

    “As a human network, we make the world a smaller place” – I like that and think it speaks to Twitter and it’s adoption problem. @SalesDuJour:disqus mentioned the Twitter to LI conversion, I’ve found that as well. As you say people connect and disconnect based on interests, fleeting as they may be. Our Facebook and LinkedIn connections aren’t always based on interest as much as existing connections, people we already know. 
    Twitter on the other hand, for most ‘heavy’ users I’ve seen, it’s all about interest and everyone’s one goals, what’s motivating us to opt in and participate right now. Some just want news, fun, and/or a way to “tweet therefore exist” so they don’t care from followers, don’t pay any mind to the brands. Business users – it’s often about branding and networking, following based upon common interests. Gary also mentioned hashtag chats, think that’s an example of a tiny little Twitter world that outsiders may not get; if Twitter can help them find their little worlds based on their interests, get value out of connecting with others that way, then maybe they can solve the paradox of more mainstream adoption? For what it’s worth.

ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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