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Media coverage drove Twitter’s growth, report says

Media coverage drove Twitter’s user base, which now rests at about 300 million. That’s the conclusion of a new report which analyzed the site’s growth pattern from 2006 to 2009.

In case it’s overlooked, it wasn’t a self-anointed PR measurement guru that drew this quaint conclusion, but rather MIT civil and environmental engineers that used the analogy of contagion, which epidemiologists and viral marketers alike, will find familiar. Contagion is the process of how diseases are transmitted.

Twitter’s no avian flu, but the study, which used Google Insights for Search as a research tool, cites a positive correlation between the media coverage of Ashton Kutcher’s challenge to CNN about which Twitter account would attract a million followers first. That led to a splash of news including a spot on Oprah where she “ceremoniously” sent her first tweet.   Consequently, “the pace of new news stories picked up again, and so did new Twitter accounts.” 

Twitter’s germination, at least, “in the United States actually relied primarily on media attention and traditional social networks based on geographic proximity and socioeconomic similarity” according to the study.

While the coverage of the study focuses on the spike in media coverage there are a few points worth driving home.


1.  Favor consistency over spikes.  Sure big news on Mashable will make you a hero for a day, and a PR pro can ride the Tweet volume high for a week, but the best PR pros are already working on the next story.  The demand never ends, and it’s up to the PR pro to be continuously thinking about what makes the company, its product and its customers unique.  

2.  Media momentum builds media momentum.  Nobody likes to write about media like the media, this very story about Twitter’s media coverage notwithstanding.  If it’s your small hometown newspaper, or the Wall Street Journal, treat every inquiry, every reporter, every blogger as if they are the most important person in the world.  When youare pitching a story, they are… 

3.  Consistency and momentum together.  It takes time to earn regular coverage.  Just look at the graph line in the video.  Twitter didn’t earn USA Today headlines in the beginning.  It took the evangelists at tech pubs and social media enthusiasts years to reach that critical mass – 13.5 percent according to the study.  It’s worth remembering that while Twitter is a media darling today but it started out just like any other start-up.  Can you imagine explaining 140 character messaging service in 2005 to a business reporter?  I remember a time when I thought Twitter was a waste of time, and perhaps it was, until people stopped sharing what they had for lunch. 

This is a great story that demonstrates the value of PR.  If Twitter could only tie its media coverage to revenue, then we could calculate the ROI. 

3 Responses

  1. Farida Harianawala

    What I really found interesting is that for all the talk about traditional media having lost its luster due to the rise of social media, the report proves that Twitter, in fact, owes some of its popularity and growth to traditional media. I think traditional media becomes more and not less important with all the information and content overload, as we will need credible sources of information that can cut through all the social media noise. Also interesting is the role of geographic proximity – despite what we may believe about the Web dissolving geographic boundaries – local still seems to be quite important in terms of influencing trends. Definitely worth noting from a PR perspective as you pointed out.

  2. Frank Strong, MA, MBA

    That is an excellent observation Farida! I'd readily agree — traditional media does tend to drive social media (and to a lesser extent, sometimes, vice-versa). Moreover credibility is especially salient as we begin to see a backlash against infographics (which I think is emerging this week, today, right now). Thanks for a great comment.

  3. Farida Harianawala

    I agree with you that vice versa is also true – social media is helping traditional media too. Notice how so many traditional media outlets are doing so many social media-related stories? Those of us in the social media club love nothing more than to read and share about…well, social media. These stories get a lot of clicks and shares on Twitter (and other networks) and the traditional outlets are definitely using that to their advantage. They are also able to reach out to newer audiences through social media. As an example, I never read The Washington Post but now end up reading (& sharing) quite a few of their stories after following them on Twitter.

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