Is time expended on Twitter worthless?

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy February 18, 2015
he Atlantic opines that Twitter keeps most of the action to itself. Does that mean it's worthless? We don't think so - here's why.

In a provocatively titled story: The Unbearable Lightness of Tweeting, author Derek Thompson argues that:

Two weeks ago, John Herrman observed that as readers' digital attention scatters to Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, publishers will acknowledge that their websites are anachronisms. It's hard to say that this is happening today. Most major websites are seeing growing traffic. But there are only so many hours one can look at a screen in a day. More of those hours are going to mobile devices. A growing share of those hours (and their corresponding dollars) are going to communications apps, like Twitter. And, by my calculations here, Twitter is sending less than 2 percent of its overall engagement back to the web. Apps don't pay my rent. A website does.

Thompson uses analysis capability that Twitter provides to prove his point. I think he has this all wrong for reasons that strike directly at the ad based model The Atlantic uses and which we at diginomica deeply believe is in zombie mode.

Whether we like it or not, all the good intentions of open networks based around crowd controlled social media that grew up in the mid-2000's have largely evaporated. Both brands and marketers hijacked those media in response to the need for Twitter (and others like Facebook, LinkedIn etc) to build out a sustainable business model. Ads were the obvious response that required the minimum amount of brainpower to instantiate.

I have always argued that Twitter's model is flawed since it is hard to see how it can ever dominate an ad driven market when its fundamental communication method restricts users to 140 characters. The case can just about be made if you accept that we live in a world where attention spans can be measured in seconds and if you're really skillful at dreaming up 140 char or less Tweets. Most people can't and even with our writing skills, we will struggle on many occasions.

Pundits will say that Twitter has been successful and therefore I am wrong. I still believe that my original thesis has been born out by the speed and pace at which Facebook has outgrown everyone else in the Western World. There are many other factors I can add but the 140 char barrier is huge.

Nevertheless, I wanted to assess what Thompson was saying for my own benefit. We use Twitter extensively for promoting our stories and, in my case for occasional chats both public and private about random topics. It is equally true that we have switched attention to emphasize what we see as greater value from LinkedIn - but less so from Facebook.

The basics

Let's start with a few basics. Compared to ourselves, The Atlantic is a giant platform. We cater to a small sliver of the global readership of people interested in a small slice of humanity.

I've long argued that the way we operate actively discourages reading and therefore we should find that those who read our content are genuinely interested in the topics on offer. The same should be true for The Atlantic where topics often get long form treatment. Their problem though is that they need millions of eyeballs. We don't.

Thompson argues that since Twitter soaks up the vast majority of the attention Thompson is giving it that it is therefore of dubious, if any value. I'd spin this on its head. The very fact I am commenting on that story suggests otherwise. Along with the fact that regardless of the 155K impressions Twitter recorded for the story he used as his experiment, more than 1,500 people actually read the story.

What we cannot know is the impression that created except by reference to comments to the story. Here Thompson got 57 comments - an engagement rate of around 3.8%. That is pretty darned good for a media requiring considerable effort on the part of readers to 'get' what they say, let alone amplify the story via a conversational element.


Like Thompson, we have noticed a marked fragmentation in the way content is consumed. It is at this point that you start to question the business models more deeply. In our case, we don't care where the conversations go because we are not relying upon ads to generate a revenue stream. If anything, I argue that when we follow the conversations to their natural destinations, then we add more value than simply holding the content to ourselves.

It's the data stupid

We work hard to ensure that our content reaches appropriate groups on LinkedIn, that the same happens at Facebook, that Twitter gets its share because we also know that different parts of our 'audience' have different preferences. Does it work?

Absolutely. And because we know quite a lot about what is happening on diginomica as well as what is happening elsewhere, we have a rich data set from which to discover a whole bunch of things that inform how we develop content, what matters to those who read our stuff, how well we are performing with content of all types and so on.

The bigger problem and one which Thompson omits is that nobody can know what will fly and what won't. It is often the case that things we sweat blood over go nowhere while the quick hit gets a shitload of attention. It's bitter-sweet but something over which we cannot afford to angst.

On the other hand, we work on a slew of topics we genuinely believe are important but which may not generate a huge amount of attention. In these cases, we know they generate the right attention. For example, Stuart and Derek's 'campaign' exposing some of the UK government's idiocy over digital transformation led to an important climbdown. While we know that audience is limited, it is still a very powerful and important audience that has a reach way beyond our immediate sphere of influence.

For myself, the Panaya acquisition by Infosys is a story colleagues believe has huge long term implications for the ERP end of the software industry. Very few other media picked it up. Some didn't understand it at all.  While we didn't see huge readership, we saw important conversations springing up elsewhere around the topics that we expect to amplify in due course. We also saw a similar level of engagement as that enjoyed by Thompson's story - 3.6%. You see where I'm going?

It's not about the data, stupid

This is not about raw numbers. It's not about the number of re-Tweets or even about the number of story reads. It's about the totality of engagement wherever that may be and who is engaging with that content.

Those metrics allow us to make inferences that we can put into context around the topic under discussion. That's vitally important for a media that is seeking to be part of the influence chain and not simply a media of record.

We firmly believe that our understanding of what the data is telling us is the key to understanding what works and what doesn't in the context of a business model that doesn't pander to advertisers' crazy ass metrics.

Can this be applied more generally? I think the answer is self evident. If you are attempting to constantly get better insights into what matters to your readership then you have the basic tools with which to reach them in ways that make sense to them.

Simply tarring Twitter - or any other media - with the near 'worthless' brush with which Thompson seeks to characterize them is, quite frankly, missing the point. And it is particularly silly when, as Thompson knows, he is making an exchange of value in what has always been something of a Faustian trade.

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