The great Twitter numbers swindle

A few days ago several thousand people (me included) clicked on a random link that appeared on Twitter offering us a chance to find out our ‘Twifficiency’ – it was a pointless but ultimately harmless link, proof if it were ever needed that those on Twitter are by nature a fairly narcissistic bunch. Offer us a chance to give ourselves a pat on the back and by and large we’ll take it.

Those of us who waste spend a great deal of our time on Twitter will probably be familiar with many metrics that judge our online influence/credibility/ranking. You can measure your number of followers, number of tweets, Twitter influence, Tweet Rank etc etc. I’ve long been convinced that these are hollow and meaningless figures that tell nothing of how much value a person is bringing to their online community. Yet it’s only after talking to my friend and knower of most things social media Adam Gray that I found concrete proof of the absurdity of these statistics.

Adam set up a Twitter account (@agsocialmedia) at the start of June as an experiment. The no. 1 rule that covered all of these actions was clear: he wasn’t allowed to do ANYTHING to interact with followers. The plan was simple: he linked the account to Twitterfeed, set up Google Alerts for certain keywords and Friendfollow to build his follower numbers. He automated a series of actions which allowed him to send tweets which are both topical and unique to any followers (all of whom he followed back; and they received a nice introduction DM of course).  In other words, the entire account management was automated.

I’ve ran the stats on Adam’s account this week and learned the following:

Following 1,629

Followers 1,669

Tweets sent  1,660

Klout Score 23  “@agsocialmedia is a Conversationalist: you love to connect and always have the inside scoop. Good conversation is not just a skill, it’s an art. You might not know it, but when you are witty, your followers hang on every word.” Really?

Twitter grade: 97.5% (higher than the vast majority of genuine folk)

Tweet Value: $658 (sell it Adam!)

There are other metrics but I’m sure you get the point. To the casual observer, this account might look very much like any number of Twitter accounts we see every day. According to these and other sites this is a highly ranked and credible Twtter account.

While Adam’s experiment is a fascinating one it does leave me wondering whether I should find the results more depressing than I do. After all, now that I know this account is automated, how many others that I have followed thinking they were real, are in fact equally bogus?

And so to my main concern. How many people out there, particularly corporate managers who employ a person fully or partly to manage their social media, still judge the performance of their social media campaigns based on these ridiculous statistics? And while this post has focussed on Twitter the argument carries equally for Facebook and LinkedIn use.

There’s a management truism that states that what you choose to measure determines the outcomes you get. If companies are appraising and rewarding their social media teams based on these objective metrics, perhaps Adam’s experiment should serve as a wake-up call.

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15 Responses to “The great Twitter numbers swindle”

  1. Interesting. I didn’t know you could automate specific tweets, but will be looking out for any suspiciously vague DMs from now on too!

    August 19, 2010 at 11:56 am Reply
  2. Sam #

    Great post Andy. It should certainly act as a wake up call for those who think Twitter is all about numbers. For me an effective campaign or Twitter user is somebody who interacts and cares about those who have followed for a reason. The users that irritate me the most are those who start following you just because you have mentioned a particular keyword in a tweet. this is not effective.

    August 19, 2010 at 12:56 pm Reply
  3. Andy, I notice that Andy’s Twitter account appears on 41 lists as well. Would these have been put on there manually or are there automatic list makers?
    If he was a Travel Tweeter then I would probably add him to my Travelfeed list, as it is full of Tweeps who post via Twitterfeed, or post over 6 Tweets simultaneously. Many only interact with other Tweeps when then is a Q in the month.

    August 19, 2010 at 1:24 pm Reply
  4. Thanks for the comments. Yes, it certainly does make you look twice at the Twitter characters we see who never chat or interact with anyone. John, not sure about the Twitter lists and whether these can be automated. Can anyone shed any light on this? I share your bugbear over multiple simultaneous tweets. Usually react with an unfollow.

    August 19, 2010 at 2:42 pm Reply
  5. Andy. Good post. And you hit on some key points. I think it best to look at Twitter as if its a virtual cocktail party. The metrics although interesting are just a small part in understanding social media’s relavance.

    August 19, 2010 at 4:05 pm Reply
  6. Cam #

    Very interesting article! It makes you wonder what the primary objective for Twitter really is? Is it social driven or marketing driven? It makes you scratch your head…

    August 19, 2010 at 4:40 pm Reply
  7. I retweeted this article in the hopes that my tweet value will go up a buck or two.

    August 19, 2010 at 11:16 pm Reply
  8. oh yeah.. i always suspected you were a clever guy andy.. uh huh, and now i know. yup, u r a clever guy;)

    Oh this is a great post. Who would have thought, if i set up my twitter account right, i don’t even need to run it… but could sell it for real $$.. fantastic:P

    seriously, thanks for pointing out the gaping loopholes in bogus stats…now if u will excuse me, im gonna go look at mine:P (kidding!)

    August 20, 2010 at 12:04 am Reply
  9. Daaaamn. I’ve seen some unbelievable Klout scores for accounts that are clearly running on auto pilot. Really got me wondering how. But the “@agsocialmedia is a Conversationalist” bit really brings the point home. At this point in time, automated popularity scores are just about useless as a true indicator. Their real value is in the eye of the beholder.

    Thanks for this post, Andy. Good food for thought.



    August 20, 2010 at 9:12 am Reply
  10. Hi Everyone

    This experiment is proving very interesting, but the whole Twitter numbers game makes me laugh (or cry – depending on my mood). Social media is such a fantastic tool for connecting people and enabling conversations, but with all of this automation we run a risk of it being changed in to a broadcast platform just like all of the others out there and losing its credibility in the process. Certainly if my experiment is anything to go by automation may build numbers, listings and even (oddly) retweets…but it certainly doesn’t build a following that can be mobilised in to action.

    I have c. 1700 followers at the moment on @AGSocialMedia yet when I post a trackable link on a tweet I get very little response perhaps half a dozen clicks – a 0.3% response rate. On my proper twitter feed @TheAdamGray I have just under 700 followers, and when I post the same link I get a response rate of about 80 clicks – an 11% response rate.

    Clearly I spend more time developing the relationships on @TheAdamGray, but the net result is a 33 fold increase in getting people to do what you ask them to do which makes it much more valuable to me.

    However we shouldn’t forget that even measuring click though rates is not in itself a useful metric for success on twitter, the larger landscape of social media or any aspect of business. The ONLY metrics that count (in business at any rate) are those which deliver a real benefit – increased sales, decreased costs, increased buying frequency or increased spend per transaction.

    Everything else is just window dressing.

    The trick is working-out just how you can track the benefits that you may or may not be getting.

    Thanks for taking part.


    August 20, 2010 at 5:41 pm Reply
  11. Thanks for the sharing your thoughts Adam (as the star of the article), and for adding the valuable points. As you say, developing relationships is more important than any spurious statistic that some apps developer might cook up (interesting though they are).
    Those using Twitter/other social media tools for their business should not focus on such metrics, when they have the undeniable indicators of success (increased profits and cashflow) on which the business as a whole is judged.

    August 20, 2010 at 6:14 pm Reply
  12. There is definitely an obsession with the numbers! When I first started using Twitter, I wasn’t very aware of these automated accounts. But now that I’ve been using it for a few years, I’ve gotten better about spotting them. I won’t follow accounts that only post links. I also try to make sure that they have interacted with another user somewhat recently. If they don’t, I won’t follow back. At one point, once I let on to the fact that some of those accounts are automated, I unfollowed most of them. It just clutters up your home screen! Sad that so many other users didn’t notice, or didn’t care, that his account was run like a robot.

    August 20, 2010 at 8:26 pm Reply
  13. Now here’s a weird, useless and spooky fact that says a lot about my own narcissism. (Damn tricky word to spell, that). Minutes ago I was looking up ‘kudos twitter’ precisely to find one of these tools. It was klout that I should’ve been looking for. My very next google search was for my name. On page 2 I find my comment here on this post, in which I discover the very name of the correct narcissistic tool that I was originally looking for!

    October 11, 2010 at 5:47 am Reply
  14. Glad to hear my post proved of practical use to you Jools! One of the good things about having a blog that ranks 140 of UK blogs about travel starting with the number 5 and written on an Monday.

    October 13, 2010 at 8:17 pm Reply


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