Twitter: Media Or (Un)Social Network?

If Twitter is part of your social recruiting strategy, you might want to rethink how you use it in light of a remarkable analysis of Twitter users and the messages they send.

The microblogging service has much more in common with traditional news media than it does with social networking, according to a team of researchers from Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. The researchers presented their findings last month at the 19th World Wide Web Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“If we interpret the act of following as subscribing to tweets,” the researchers write in their paper, “then Twitter serves more as an information-spreading medium than an online social networking service.”

After studying 41.7 million Twitter profiles, their 1.47 billion follower relationships, and 106 million tweets, the research team found most tweets are topical, only a few users have large audiences, and that Twitter following is rarely reciprocal.

Only 22 percent of Twitter connections are reciprocal; a percentage far lower than the 68 percent on Flickr, or Yahoo 360’s 84 percent.

But, as a distribution network, Twitter is powerful and fast. A message you tweet out to your followers has a better than 50/50 chance of being retweeted within the hour. When it is, the researchers found that “any retweeted tweet is to reach an average of 1,000 users no matter what the number of followers is of the original tweet. Once retweeted, a tweet gets retweeted almost instantly on next hops, signifying fast diffusion of information after the 1st retweet.”

(One hop is a retweet. Two hops is a retweeted retweet.)

Clearly your Twitter messages reach a larger audience than just your followers. You probably knew that, but now you have some handle on just how much bigger. Of course, not every tweet will be retweeted, since those with few followers aren’t going to get much mileage. However, the more timely and “newsy” your message, the more likely it will be retweeted and the more likely it will make not only one hop, but multiple hops.

If a tweet is going to be retweeted a second time, it will happen and fast. Within an hour, a message can make five hops.

The takeaways for recruiters is to consider Twitter a distribution network and not a social network. You may engage in two-way conversations with some of your followers, but the majority will follow you for what you have to say. The more informational and topical — the newsier — the better.

Thus, you need to provide value. Simply tweeting out your current jobs is not really making the best use of Twitter.

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I had a conversation the other day with Mary Delaney, head of Personified, CareerBuilder’s recruitment marketing consultancy and search firm. We were discussing social media and in particular how CareerBuilder is helping its clients develop their social recruiting chops.

One piece of advice she offered was that before jumping on to Facebook or setting up a Twitter account you should “listen to the conversation.” “Analyze the postings,” she says. Not only the posts that mention your company, but go see what topics people interested in your industry are discussing. Discover “the topics you are going to have to respond to,” she counsels, before you push send on your first tweet.

How do you listen? Search Google. But Twitter conversations can prove more valuable. These tweets, especially when it comes to hot topics, take place in real time and, as the Korean research team observed, don’t necessarily track with what Google thinks is hot.

How reliable are these 140-character messages as a tool for discovering what’s hot and what’s not? A University of Tokyo team is using Twitter messages to detect and report earthquakes in Japan.

The three researchers, in another paper from the same WWW conference, showed how they built a real-time earthquake detection and reporting system entirely with Twitter users. “Our system detects earthquakes promptly,” says the researchers, “and sends e-mails to registered users. Notification is delivered much faster than the announcements that are broadcast by the JMA (Japan Meteorological Agency).”

What they did is to build a system that looks for certain combinations of words in tweets sent by users in Japan. They considered Twitter users as earthquake sensors and harnessed them to detect and report ground shaking.

This is akin to the monitoring systems Personified and many recruitment marketing firms use to track what’s being said about their clients on Twitter and elsewhere.

John Zappe is the editor of and a contributing editor of John was a newspaper reporter and editor until his geek gene lead him to launch his first website in 1994. He developed and managed online newspaper employment sites and sold advertising services to recruiters and employers. Before joining ERE Media in 2006, John was a senior consultant and analyst with Advanced Interactive Media and previously was Vice President of Digital Media for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

Besides writing for ERE, John consults with staffing firms and employment agencies, providing content and managing their social media programs. He also works with organizations and businesses to assist with audience development and marketing. In his spare time  he can be found hiking in the California mountains or competing in canine agility and obedience competitions.

You can contact him here.


11 Comments on “Twitter: Media Or (Un)Social Network?

  1. Well done article. Goes back to the basics know your audience, provide value, differentiate yourself from everyone else or what I prefer to say – Be the Red Jacket – in the sea of Gray “Tweets.”

  2. Interesting perspective and data, John. The Twitter experience continues to evolve and shift as adoption rates increase. As the size of the Twitter network grows it brings new challenges and opportunities. While I agree with the points on the power of a distributed network, I also believe that Twitter does offer opportunities for social networking and some brands are doing this piece well. How companies design their strategies, their overall intent and gain clarity around their talent philosophy will determine how they engage on Twitter. Personally, I think a blended approach is best and the companies that figure out how to do both will have the advantage.

  3. John, thank you for this insightful article. There are some interesting points here.

    From my perspective, companies need to first understand the social experience before jumping in with both feet. Often times I find companies “lumping” sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace into one big identical category rather than looking at the intrinsic value each brings to the table.

    Years ago when print advertising was king, recruiters labored over choosing which would garner them the best and most qualified candidates. By today’s standards, social networks/media should be viewed in the same way. That means knowing if your target audience is participating and if so on which network.

    Twitter is just one of many social venues and not the sum definition of what a social network can be, though I do agree that it is lightening fast and a great information disseminator. When used correctly, I have seen organizations experience hiring success with social networks. For example, there are job posting applications which have aligned themselves with Twitter and have shown themselves to be knowledgeable in the area of helping organizations successfully recruit. So choices like Twitter do have the potential to provide value, but like anything, it’s one of many solutions to be investigated, and to Susan’s point, a blended marketing approach is usually best.

  4. The points made by Susan are quite true. Unfortunately, far too many businesses small to mid size lack a cohesive written strategic action plan and more specifically integrated marketing and sales plans. A lot of business people are jumping onto the social media training bandwagon to drive traffic to non-functional websites. The key is a John stated “When used correctly.”

  5. I enJOYed Susan Burns comment to this great article…”blended approach”, thanks for sharing you insights ALL… enJOY your weekend, and “spend” your time wisely… Best, B-

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