Zeroing In on Active Networkers

New research from Harvard Business School and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project give new perspective to the social media and social CRM phenomenon and raise a yellow flag for all those people proclaiming social media the second coming.

First: Harvard.

The Economist ran one of its special report sections this week (the issue with Steve Jobs dressed as Moses on the cover) on social networking. While generally laudatory of the technology’s promise — headlines include “Profiting from friendship” and “A peach of an opportunity” — the report also delivered the unvarnished and dynamic truth about adoption.

A section titled “Twitter’s transmitters, The magic of 140 characters” quoted the work of Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, a Harvard Business School professor, and one of his MBA students, Bill Heil. The researchers surveyed more than 300,000 Twitter users in May 2009, according to the article, and reported results that include:

  • More than half said they tweeted less than once every 74 days (not quite twice per quarter).
  • The most active 10 percent of Twitter users published 90 percent of all tweets.

By comparison, the article says that on other social networks, “the most active users typically produce 30 percent of all content.” Holy #$%^ Batman!

Blogging’s Out

So who are these people? According to Pew, they’re the kind of people you might want to have a beer with — when they’re older. As reported in Fast Company, 93 percent of teens between 12 and 17 go online, and 66 percent say they text. The 18-to-29 group also has a 93 percent level of online users and, though the numbers slip for real adults — 81 percent of those 30 to 49 and 70 percent of those 50 to 64 — the numbers are very healthy.

The question, though, is what are these people doing when they are online? Teens are giving up on blogging — their numbers are about half what they were a few years ago. Facebook is the big winner for kids, and time-starved parents like Twitter. Only 15 percent of young adults bother to blog, down nine points over two years.

What does it all mean?

The Fast Company article ends with this: “Meanwhile, blogging is on the rise for adults over 30, who increased to 11 percent from 7 percent in 2007. And 47 percent of adults now use social networking sites, up 10 percent from a year ago.”

It seems the most economically viable demographic is getting its act together, but there are caveats. There are many more readers than writers — that’s not surprising, it’s human nature. But I think you need to be wary here. Diane Hessan, CEO of Communispace, likes to remind me that in social networking, participation is very important, and knowing the demographics of participation is vital.

Who’s Participating?

The 10 percent of Twitter users contributing 90 percent of tweets with more than half logging on very occasionally is a red flag for anyone contemplating social media marketing, because it exposes an important truth that membership is not participation. There is not enough data on the Twitter users who tweet once per quarter. Do they go to Twitter daily to read stuff? I am sure some do, but I wouldn’t want to base a marketing campaign on it.

The decline in blogging is a clear indication that there is, or soon will be, less to read on blogs and less to comment on, though there will be more personal stuff to see on Facebook, if you have a lot of friends.

I have recently seen a number of CRM products that capture such valuable information as a person’s Twitter, Facebook and blog account information. The vendors are certain that this information is the source of new insight and business opportunity, even in the B2B space. I am not. This data suggests that just as vendors are ramping up, the raw material that they expect to mine may be drying up. Notwithstanding the 11 percent of adults over 30 who are blogging more, it seems to me that people are moving to personal expression that may not have a great deal of business utility.

Some of the explanation for this may be the rotten economy, but we’re about four months into a turnaround, and numbers complied last May are already becoming obsolete. Business activity is picking up, but it is unclear if people are turning to social media to do their business networking.

The lesson from this, for me, hews close to Hessan’s advice. You need to understand who is participating — not their names and other identifying data, but participation per person or organization, demographic data and the like. A lot of 17-year-old boys might be attracted to the new models on an exotic car site, for instance, but you wouldn’t want to develop a marketing campaign for them.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].

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