“I’m having a tuna sandwich and a coffee for lunch.”
In the summer of 2006, this would be considered a normal and acceptable tweet. After all, according to creator Jack Dorsey, Twitter was nothing more than a web based SMS tool allowing groups of people to stay in touch with each other. The purpose was to say whatever you wanted in 140 characters or less. Brief, to the point, and fun.
However, it did not take long for businesses to see Twitter as a tool for self promotion. The power of Twitter as an effective marketing tool became evident during the 2007 South by Southwest film festival where attendees, celebrities and sponsors used Twitter to inform each other of events and promotions.
Soon after, savvy companies started to integrate Twitter into their marketing programs. By knowing who was following them, they were able to send relevant, timely messages focused on getting business, building relationships, and creating buzz. At a time when few companies knew what Twitter was or how to use it effectively, those companies that refined and perfected their Twitter strategies got noticed and achieved significant success.
And how could they not? Back then, the number of followers a person had was a fraction of what they are today. People saw a greater percentage of the tweets they received. Automation and scheduling applications for tweeting did not exist, thus people tweeted when there was something worth saying. And for the most part followers listened, replied and retweeted when they wanted to. No agenda, no strategy, just people saying “Hi, here’s something I wanted to share with you…”
Like previous forms of “push” technology such as fax and email, those with the biggest lists yielded the most power. That power being the ability to communicate or market directly to the end user. Companies no longer had to rely on mass media when they could reach their clients directly for a fraction of the cost.
Like the experts of years past that would show companies how to write a “fax that will always get read” or an “email that will always be opened”, a new flock of self titled masters and gurus had arrived ready to show both companies and individuals how to build a list and leverage it for profit.
And that is essentially what Twitter followers have become. They are simply lists of people and organizations that have given permission to others to say whatever they want to them. But that doesn’t mean they’re actually listening. The days of people being attentive to every tweet they receive has long disappeared.
With people following hundreds or thousands of others, the continuous flow of tweets are like scrolling sports scores, with people taking a quick glance from time to time. With the introduction of Twitter Lists in 2009, members can now be grouped into virtual folders, further empowering the receiver to control the effectiveness of the message.
So the game of cat and mouse marketing enters the Twitter universe. Marketers trying to find ways to get their messages to as many people as possible as often as possible, and people trying to control how often and on what terms they receive those messages.
As such, today’s Twitter marketing strategists employ extravagant and randomly orchestrated schemes to attract more followers. And like the email lists of yesterday, the focus seems to be on quantity over quality.
The frequency of tweets, the art of retweeting, subject matter, key words, “mentions”, direct messages, hashtags, and the ever popular “I’ll follow you if you follow me” offer, have all become the guru’s tools of choice for doing nothing more than increasing followers or improving their Google ranking. However the one thing that “experts” will never admit is that there is no formula for Twitter success. And if they’ve found one, it’s probably ineffective by the time they’ve sold their first training webinar.
And yet it is more evident than ever that what drives legitimate followers is the same thing that has attracted followers through all forms of media: the content and the person delivering it. The public’s obsession with celebrities means many are followed regardless of their content quality. Conan O’Brien boasts over 900 thousand followers with just one comical tweet a day. Kim Kardashian has over 3.5 million people following her name-dropping tweets about the life of a socialite. And celebrity Twitter pioneer Ashton Kutcher has over 4.8 million people following tweets that at times could be confused for alien code. Are 4.8 million people actually reading his tweets? Highly unlikely.
On the flip side it’s interesting to note that some of the brightest scholars and business people, those with the most knowledge to share, either have relatively few followers or choose not to tweet at all. A June 2009 UberCEO.com article stated that out of the top 100 CEO’s in America, only two had Twitter accounts – both in the technology field.
And now with the introduction of paid tweets, the transformation is complete. Twitter has now become a soapbox/billboard for the internet masses, with premium visibility for those willing to pay for it.
Twitter is a victim of its own success. What started off as a forum for people to share and exchange condensed renderings of ideas and experiences has transformed into a streaming media tool for personal branding, multi-level marketing, SEO strategies, and site referrals.
So is Twitter any different than any other form of mass media? It could be argued no. Like television, newspapers, or any other web site, you have the ability to choose what messages you receive and from who. Ignoring a print ad for a new car is no different than ignoring a tweet about a new car. Changing the channel is no different than unfollowing someone. And should you change your mind, simply read their tweets or follow them again.
And remember, there’s no need to worry if you missed anything. It will likely be retweeted by someone else you’re following.