Commentary

What Some Statistics Won't Tell You About Twitter

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."

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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.

4 comments about "What Some Statistics Won't Tell You About Twitter".
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  1. Julie Waite from The Redwoods Group, May 12, 2011 at 10:26 a.m.

    I agree with Catharine's assessment, and want to expand upon the last point about people tweeting news without links. I get major news first from Twitter all the time - Bin Laden's death, the Tuscon shooting, celebrity deaths, etc. and the first thing I do after reading that something happened (usually a linkless reference/comment on something happening) is to google it and read a news article. So Google gets the credit for my traffic to a news site, but Twitter is what provoked it.

  2. Jamie Dunham from Jamie Dunham | Brand Solutions, May 12, 2011 at 10:33 a.m.

    There seems to be some type of effete snobbery about Twitter. I hear it all the time from people who have never used it, or try to debunk it as a passing fad. The truth is that Twitter seems to be one giant group of headlines that is constantly changing. Those headlines actually bring you news that you will never read from a news organization, and conversely, points out article that you might have missed had it not been for Twitter. I too, often search for news after seeing a tweet that does not have link attached. The poor news organizations are rationalizing their part in the changing scope of news. Citizen journalism has its flaws but there is not escaping the fact that it is here.

  3. Bruce May from Bizperity, May 12, 2011 at 10:54 a.m.

    Excellent post Catherine. Julie also hit the nail on the head... who has an app to track us going from Twitter to Google? Social media defies our data points and that makes it difficult to assess but our own experience tells us more about how it really works than any metrics... at least for now...

  4. Leonard Sipes, May 12, 2011 at 11:42 a.m.

    Driving visitors to websites–new report from Pew.

    LeonardSipes.Com

    The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism as to how people get to news and informational websites makes for fascinating reading and provides valuable insight as to web traffic in general. Some observations:

    No site holds visitors for long. The average visitor spends three minutes and four seconds;

    There is a small but loyal group of users who come to sites often (an average of 7 percent of users);

    Out of 4,600 news and information sites, the top seven percent collect 80 percent of overall traffic;

    The top ten percent of news sites attract half the traffic;

    Well-known (legacy news sites) get two-thirds of web traffic;

    Specialty (or niche) sites like health care or science do not drawl an especially loyal audience. Not a single site in the top 20 covers a niche;

    Out of the news site categories, Cable TV websites clearly dominate followed by on-line publications and newspapers;

    The report suggests that “the dominance of general interest rather than niche sites suggests the enduring value of curation, or editing–that people like someone helping them make decisions about what’s important.”

    Search engines continue to dominant as points of entry with Facebook growing in influence but still producing small numbers;

    As to another analysis of the Pew data on the power of Facebook to drive traffic from MarketingCharts.Com (link below) we find, “At the top was Huffingtonpost.com, which derived 8% of its traffic from links to Huffingtonpost.com content posted on Facebook. At the low end were AOLNews.com, MSNBC.com and the local aggregator Topix, which each derived 1% from Facebook. The New York Times was near the higher part of the spectrum; 6% of its traffic came from Facebook.”

    Observations?

    For most of us, our site visits are short and our bounce rate (not moving onto another page) is higher than we would like it to be. We understand that Internet users skim and don’t read unless it’s exactly what they are looking for in the format desired. The easier we make the user experience (videos, audio, easy-to-read material) the longer visitors will stay.

    Cable TV dominates news sites because they are video based. We should emulate.

    Every site will have a small core of loyal users who may be of influence within your sector. Embrace and support their interactions.

    The popularity of general interest news sites is that they write their own content and provide their own analysis rather than simply scrape (copy) content. People find comfort and authority with professional writings and critiques.

    In this day and age of making fun of “old media” it seems that reputation reigns supreme. Your authority dominates web traffic (do people know you and respect you?). Establishing authority on your site becomes crucial.

    Niche sites have their limitations as to getting traffic.

    Note that there are two types of Facebook experiences, those who stay within the Facebook structure (the great majority) and those who leave Facebook and go to other websites (fewer in number).

    There seems to be growing evidence that Facebook does little to send visitors to websites when compared to search engines. Facebook’s ability to send web traffic may be growing but it remains small for many sites.

    Thus efforts to attract an audience is far more dependent on marketing, search rank and the use of key words and interesting material within traditional websites than a Facebook and Twitter presence.

    Yes, major corporations successfully use Facebook and Twitter to engage in conversations about their products or to resolve disputes. But for the vast majority of sites, Facebook and Twitter has limitations. Major corporations also pump a lot of money into graphics and visuals to produce a “wow” factor in their Facebook pages.

    See Pew link at http://www.journalism.org/sites/journalism.org/files/NIELSEN%20STUDY.pdf

    See MarketingCharts link at http://www.marketingcharts.com/television/google-top-outside-referral-for-news-sites-17384/?utm_campaign=newsletter&utm_source=mc&utm_medium=tex

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