Are Twitter Follower Counts the New RSS Subscriber Numbers?

You've seen them - a Twitter account that follows you that has thousands of followers, and follows around 110 percent of that amount. It is the trademark signal of either an automated, API-driven Twitter account or someone who derives a significant portion of their self-esteem from follower count numbers. Alternatively there is Bill Heil's Harvard Business Review Article that states "Specifically, the top 10 percent of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90 percent of tweets. On a typical online social network, the top 10 percent of users account for 30 percent of all production." So, are these really influencers, as social media proponents suggest, or are they just the same people talking to themselves over and over? It is not as simple as black and white.

Is this really a sign of actual social media validation or evidence of SPAM and gaming; once again incrementally eliminating the relevancy of an Internet medium? Let's look for a moment at the history of how other authority metrics met with their decline in power.

Technorati Link Counts: Large group blogs eventually created splogs that had little other purpose but to inflate link count metrics. Once a medium talked about extensively, the metric is now obsolete.

RSS Feed Subscribers: TechCrunch's Michael Arrington built an entire empire by having one of the largest counts of RSS subscribers on the Internet. Today, the RSS subscriber numbers on TechCrunch appear in the footer, not the top of the site. Michael Gray and others have openly questioned the accuracy of RSS. A few people still assert this is a great metric, though actual engagement is difficult to measure, especially from an outsider looking at an RSS subscriber count point of view.

Throughout history, people have sought systems to create the appearance of authority. In the world of outbound marketing this was traditionally highly correlated with audience size. Search marketing, with the often misunderstood inbound and pull focus, is changing that toward relevancy, albeit at an almost glacial pace. As content volume increases exponentially, we demand higher relevancy in our own interactions. Yet, most people don't apply this in reverse to their own organization's marketing activities.

So will Twitter meet the same fate as Technorati link counts and RSS feed subscribers? History suggests this is quite likely, yet there are valid counterarguments to consider.

Emerging Geolocation Importance: Twitter's new geo-location features might be able to leverage new forms of relevant content by marketers that would be appreciated by consumers - which could potentially create monetization models if Twitter were to put the right visionary team members in place.

Social Network Burnout: Put simply, people are less likely to join a brand new social network than they were a few years back. While the migration to new forms of social networking certainly still occurs, it's at a considerably slower rate than in the past.

What can one do to participate more effectively and strategically in the future?

  • Ask yourself: Does this metric infer a business goal? Twitter follower counts by themselves are not really a strategic business goal. But if those followers bring relevant traffic and quality engagement that meets a business objective, then try to design for and measure that impact when you start to produce the metrics in experimental mediums. Jim Sterne's just released book Social Media Metrics (Wiley) would be a good read before you start.
  • Examine how and if the new medium helps your SEO. If you can see some clear benefits, then you can perhaps justify lack of a good answer about a business goal. There are certain social networks that offer no SEO value, yet I often see people stating misinformation that they do.
  • Does the new medium allow you to reach a previously difficult-to-target demographic? If so, experimental budgets might be more easily justified.

This extends back to the pre-Internet era as well. Back in the 1990's people collected Beanie Babies and bragged about the number that they had collected....interestingly enough, when you start to type in "Beanie Baby" into Google, the top suggested completion term is "value"... people always want to "believe," even after a trend passes its peak. The creator of Beanie Babies is now very wealthy, yet few holders of the actual trinkets ever got rich from them.

David Dalka is a business strategy consultant and marketing speaker, he also maintains a blog. He will be speaking next at Search Exchange in Charlotte, NC in late May. Twitter @dalka.