While we're all busy dumping on Twitter, let's get down on it for something other than its business model, namely that it also isn't as influential a news source as you'd think. At least, that's what I read on the CBS News site, where a headline trumpets: "Twitter fails at spreading hard news -- Step aside Twitter: You aren't as good at breaking news as the media thought you were."
Or you could read Joe Flint of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote last week, concerning Twitter's role in breaking the news of bin Laden's death: "What Twitter is not, is a news organization. It does not employ reporters. It does not have news bureaus around the world. Maybe one day it will, but for now it is a global bulletin board. That's why it is so frustrating when people, particularly veteran journalists give Twitter itself credit for breaking big stories."
But, while you shouldn't believe everything you read on Twitter, you shouldn't read everything you read about Twitter either.
As it turns out, both knee-jerk analyses of Twitter's role in the news process are wrong. The CBS story focused on a new study from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. The study, which, in turn, came from analysis of Nielsen NetView data, actually looks at where traffic from top news sites comes from, and where users go once they've left a news site. And that has nothing to do with whether Twitter is good at spreading information, as that erroneous headline would have you believe. It is.
The Nielsen data, with its overlay of PEJ analysis, may differ from what some of the social media intelligentsia would like to see. It says that Twitter accounts for less than 1% of traffic to top news sites and that Facebook accounts for 3%, while Google accounts for 30%. But, according to Amy Mitchell, deputy director at the Project, those low-single-digit percentages don't add up to a lousy showing for social media properties. Only a handful of sites, Twitter and Facebook among them, are big enough influencers to even come up in the report, she explains.
Also, the Nielsen data, because it relies on referring URLs, doesn't count traffic from Twitter clients like Tweetdeck because they don't operate over the Web. While Mitchell makes clear that including that traffic probably still wouldn't put Twitter in the same category as Facebook, and certainly not of Google, undercounting is obviously a factor.
But there's one other reason that you shouldn't believe the headlines about Twitter and its role in the news business: the Nielsen data, of course, only includes click-throughs, thus automatically skewing Twitter's news-spreading abilities downward. Again, the point of the study was not to talk about Twitter in isolation, but instead to look at how Twitter affects traffic to major news sites.
Thus, it's probably more accurate to look at Twitter (and Facebook, for that matter), as playing a bigger role in what marketers might refer to as the upper part of the sales funnel. They both certainly create awareness of a news event. The consideration phase is that nanosecond or two when someone who has seen a tweet or status update that includes a link and considers whether to click on it. The "sale" is made when a user clicks through. As we all know, click-through rates, even on links shared by friends or followees, are usually in the low single digits, if that.
Further -- although I don't think this is as true of people who are deeply immersed in social media -- not everyone shares links to the news they're tweeting about. "We do see on Twitter it is used very frequently to share bits of information without necessarily linking to a news story," says Mitchell. Plus, she points out, sometimes people use Twitter simply to emote about the news. To say you're happy that Osama bin Laden is dead doesn't necessitate a link to nytimes.com.
Unfortunately, that type of sharing, as rampant as it is, doesn't do anything for news organizations. Thus, Facebook and Twitter's most useful function to news may be to serve as part of the clearinghouse for what's hot in real time. To that extent, Joe Flint is wrong. Twitter, and other social sites, are news organizations, in that they are platforms for distributing news, both real and imagined, even if -- no -- they don't actually break news in the way that reporters do.
Now, contrast Twitter's alleged lack of news influence with Google's 30% share in driving traffic to major news sites. You'll find the sales funnel analogy still fits. As it is with Google's ads, the links there are for people who are further down the sales funnel than those taking a quick peek at what's going on over at Twitter. If you're looking for what President Obama said at the White House Correspondents Dinner, chances are you'll click on at least one of the links that Google coughs up.
There's a pecking order here. While people are probably least likely to click on links from people or entities they don't know, they are more likely to click on content shared by friends -- and even more likely (duh!) to click on content they've actually sought out.
So what does it all mean? While the PEJ's analysis -- and Nielsen's data -- are accurate, they, like almost anything told in 140 characters, can't tell the whole story, especially when headline writers get in the way.