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Is Twitter on the wane?

User growth is slowing as tweeters find it harder to be heard

User growth is slowing as tweeters find it harder to be heard

Once a poster child for social media success, Twitter is now showing signs of diminished popularity. Stewart Baines explains what this means for your business.

Reports are emerging that Twitter is on the wane - apparently user growth is slowing to a halt.

So does this mean that marketers, customer services and product developers should stop listening to Twitter and move on to the next big thing?

Not so fast... let's look at the back story first.

While activity on Twitter continues to increase - the number of tweets per day is now approaching 50 million - this is largely due to an active core of one-in-five registered users who are becoming more and more engaged. According to marketing software company Hubspot, the average Twitter user in January 2010 had 300 followers compared to around 60 last July.

Twitter's problem is adding to its 75 million users. Yes, it's a considerable number, but in social media, scale is everything.

A report from research firm Barracuda Labs found that the number of new Twitter users grew just 0.34 per cent in December 2009, down from a peak of 20 per cent new users joining in April 2009. Hubspot's figures show that the peak of new users was in March 2009 (13 per cent) and fell to four per cent in October 2009.

And these are not the first reports to identify the problem. A report in September last year from research firm Hitwise found that in 2008, Twitter accounted for 0.01 per cent of visits to all websites. By June 2009, this had climbed to 0.20 per cent before falling to 0.17 per cent in September.

I realise it's pretty hard to get accurate stats on Twitter use because so many access the service via desktop software, but there is enough evidence to suggest that the number of people who want to use this social networking tool based solely on status updates which are broadcasted (i.e. you don't really have control who follows you), has reached its limit.

Can you hear me?
Twitter users may have already noticed that it's getting harder to be heard. Some highly engaged social media practitioners I know, tweeting many times per day, are reporting that it's getting more and more difficult to grow their followers organically, especially with people who are genuinely interested in what they have to say. Instead, they are being followed indiscriminately by people who want to gain social capital, with a trigger-happy 'retweet' finger.

The problem may be that the noise has reached a threshold. The cacophony created by status updates from hundreds or thousands of people, proffering links to interesting articles, dipping into conversations half-way through and dull missives about lunchtime sandwiches, is obviously getting too much for some folk.

To filter out the noise, Twitter users tend to engage or converse with a smaller number of people than their following count would imply. There's some science behind this - it's called Dunbar's Number, a concept coined by cognitive anthropologist Adrian Dunbar who posits that the average person cannot sustain more than 150 friendships. His work correlates with animal studies showing that this magic number crops up all over the animal world too.

Twitter: Not just for status updates anymore
So what should we read in to this? Is Twitter really on the wane?...

It's hard to say just yet but one good sign for Twitter's long-term health is that Twitter itself seems to recognise that being a tool that only distributes status updates is a one-trick pony. All kinds of social media from Facebook and LinkedIn to web giants like Yahoo! and Google are homing in on status and buzz. And they have a lot more to offer than Twitter.

This is probably why Twitter recently announced @Anywhere, which will allow Twitter feeds to be linked into other websites using a common API. These sites include AdAge, Amazon, Bing, Citysearch, Digg, eBay, The Huffington Post, Meebo, MSNBC.com, The New York Times, Salesforce.com, Yahoo! and YouTube.

And if you are a LinkedIn user, you'll know that you can already get your Twitter feed on your LinkedIn profile.

Ultimately what is happening is status updates are being commoditised, which I wrote about in more detail in a recent blog post about the future of social media.

Now I don't think Twitter is necessarily a lost cause and will go the way of Friends Reunited. It is still a very powerful tool, and one that should not be ignored by anyone working in sales, marketing, PR, customer service or product development.

More importantly, status updates are here to stay, whichever the social network they originate from.

Keep listening and reacting
So businesses still need a Twitter strategy. But really what they need is a strategy for listening and reacting to all the social media conversations about you - whether they are on Twitter, blogs, Facebook Groups, forums, Posterous and so on.

Status updates are a revelation: you can hear what people say about you and your competitors, you can discovers flaws in your products that you didn't realise were there, and you can find out exactly where and when customers are disgruntled.

And you can act on what you hear: change the product, contact the customer, warn the helpdesk and so on. (Marketing guru Olivier Blanchard has some interesting advice on how to turn social media listening into pan-organisational acting.)

But let's remember the Dunbar Number and ultimately, that social media is a personal media, and companies are not individuals. You can listen, you can broadcast offers, you can respond to complaints, but don't expect social media users to want to be your friend. They can only engage with a few people at a time, and unless you have the resources to develop a one to one relationship with your thousands/millions of customers, you will end up disappointed.

Stewart Baines is a technology writer with Futurity Media. You can read more of his blogs at http://www.futuritymedia.com/. Or you can follow his Twitter noise @stewartbaines.