Understanding Twitters Growth

One of the hottest recent stories in the tech industry has been the rapid rise of the messaging service Twitter. Starting from a small base of enthusiast users, the service has rapidly risen to prominence in the media, with extensive coverage of its adoption by celebrities. In the last month, Google counted about 65,000 news stories mentioning Twitter, and the web tracking service Alexa reported a remarkable 400% increase in traffic to Twitter.com in the last four months. In April 2009, Alexa reported that daily visits to twitter.com surpassed those to cnn.com.

Summary: For most users, Twitter is a casual entertainment tool
But much of the coverage has focused on describing the Twitter phenomenon rather than explaining exactly what role it plays in peoples’ lives. To explore that, Rubicon recently surveyed 3,000 US adult computer users on their awareness and usage of Twitter.
The results showed:

  • The number of Twitter users has indeed risen very rapidly. In our research, the increase is about 280% in the last six months.
  • Although most computer users are now aware of Twitter, only a small percentage are using it. Awareness of Twitter has become mainstream, but at present usage has not.
  • Twitter isn’t for everyone. About a third of the people who have ever tried Twitter have stopped using it.
  • Twitter usage is generally casual and focused on personal rather than business purposes. Most Twitter users call themselves light users, and say it doesn’t play an important role in their lives. In other words, for most users, Twitter is a form of casual entertainment.

What it means: It’s a new medium, treat it differently
Most people have never tried Twitter, so it’s still far too early to judge what it will grow into. But as of today, it looks like a very promising entertainment tool. Companies looking to integrate Twitter into their communication strategies should think carefully about how the service is really used today, and what users expect from it. Treating it like e-mail or blogging would be a big mistake; it’s a very different medium.

Awareness of Twitter is high, but understanding is low
About 85% of the survey respondents said they have heard of Twitter, but most of those who have heard of it said they know nothing or only a little bit about it. This is undoubtedly an effect of the recent surge in media coverage. Usage of Twitter hasn’t necessarily crossed into the mainstream, but basic awareness has.

“Please choose the phrase that best describes your awareness and use of the web service Twitter.”

Heavy users of Twitter are still a very small group
This is a more detailed view of the information presented in the pie chart above. Most users of Twitter describe themselves as light users. Only 0.7% of the computer-using population (10% of Twitter users) describe themselves as heavy users of Twitter. About 20% of Twitter users call themselves moderate users, and about 70% are light users:

Usage pattern of Twitter users
The survey also showed that 3% of computer users have tried Twitter and stopped using it. This sort of churn is not surprising for any technology service, but it indicates that Twitter doesn’t please everyone.

Twitter accounts have risen rapidly
Percent of US PC users who use Twitter
Our survey showed 6.9% of the US computer-using population was using Twitter as of March 2009. Previously, in September of 2008, Rubicon surveyed US computer users on their usage of various community websites, including Twitter.. At that time, about 2.4% said they had Twitter accounts. So the number of Twitter users appears to have increased by about 280% in six months.

The margin of error in both studies is about plus or minus two points at the 95% confidence level, so it’s difficult to say Twitter’s exact growth rate. But the surveys confirm that it’s growing fast.

For most people, Twitter is a form of entertainment
When asked how important Twitter is in their lives, most users say it does not play an important role. They also describe their use of Twitter as much more personal than business-oriented. For most users, Twitter today is a form of personal entertainment.

“How important is Twitter to you in your work and personal life?”
More than half of Twitter users said it is not at all important in their work lives, and more than a third said it is not at all important in their personal lives. So the majority of Twitter users say it doesn’t play a big role in their lives, and usage is skewed toward personal rather than work purposes.

This pattern doesn’t necessarily say anything bad about Twitter; since so many users are new, it shouldn’t be expected to play a huge rule in their lives just yet. But it does mean that the big jump in Twitter usage could be transient if the service fails to weave its way into users’ lives more deeply.

In other words, it’s too early to judge whether Twitter will be a fad or a sustained phenomenon.

Personal and business usage patterns are very different
The more heavily someone uses Twitter, the more likely they are to say it plays an important role in their personal life. This is not a surprise — you are more likely to use a service frequently if it’s important to you.

Importance of Twitter in their personal lives
But the pattern was very different for business usage. Even heavy Twitter users generally said it doesn’t play an important role in their business lives. Twitter simply isn’t a business tool for most people today, even those who use it heavily.

Importance of Twitter in their business lives


Rubicon (my company) conducted an online survey of about 3,000 PC users in the US in March 2009. The sample was provided by a national sampling service. The margin of error for the survey is approximately plus or minus two percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

(Note: This post was co-authored with my Rubicon team in 2009.)

1 Reply

  1. Thank you for sharing the results of your survey with your newsletter readers.
    I own a B2B company that provides social media consulting services and the results of this survey don’t seem to paint a viable picture for Twitter and its applications for business.
    Part of the reason that businesspeople don’t understand how best to use Twitter is people think because social media tools are so easy to use (from a technical standpoint), they must be easy to master and therefore extract meaningful results. Not so.
    By and large, most of the clients who reach out to us for help along with the hundreds of people I meet while speaking at conferences, are using Twitter (and other social tools) just to use it. It would be safe to say that it’s hard to know what impact something has on your business and life if you don’t know why you’re using it the first place.
    Statistics like these do indeed paint an accurate picture, but it’s really rare that anyone looks into what’s driving the numbers. Once you understand the flawed actions that drive the numbers, you can begin the shift to focus on generating results.
    Lastly, Twitter is a microblogging tool, not a messaging apparatus although there is messaging functionality built in to facilitate one-on-one conversation.

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