Why Twitter's Reach Is Limited

Unless the Micro-blogging Site Gets Users to Stick Around, It'll Remain Niche

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Over the past few weeks we've seen countless stories about the "Oprah effect" on Twitter -- TechCrunch suggested more than one million people signed up and many a blog linked to Hitwise data that suggested the talk-show doyenne's endorsement of the service led to a 43% spike in Twitter traffic.

While those numbers are important, the breathless reports have not accounted for what people do after they sign up for a Twitter account. Creating a Twitter account doesn't equal becoming an uber-user, or even a casual user, of the micro-blogging site. Nielsen Online data released today suggest more than 60% of people who sign up for Twitter abandon the service.

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David Martin, VP-primary research at Nielsen Online, posted the data on the company's blog, noting that Twitter's retention rate -- the percentage of a given month's audience that comes back the following month -- hovers around 40%. So that means only 40% of the people who visited Twitter last month will come back this month. However, that number is slightly higher than the 30% retention rate Twitter saw before Oprah Winfrey's endorsement

One problem, Mr. Martin noted, is that it's very hard to grow reach when that much of your audience fails to return month after month. He plotted the reach and retention rates of the major websites Nielsen follows and came up with an audience curve that suggests that at Twitter's current retention rate, it will only reach about 10% of online consumers. (Mr. Martin's Y axis is the minimum retention rate for the corresponding X axis, or reach level; the plots in the upper right quadrant of the graph are high-reach and high-retention sites such as Google and Yahoo.)

Internet Reach

Living up to the hype
"Twitter has really big hype -- it's the hype that much bigger sites like MySpace or Facebook had when they were coming up," Mr. Martin said in an interview. "But it's just not going to live up to that hype in the long run, audience-wise, if it can't get retention up."

He also looked at MySpace and Facebook's retention in their first few years, when their reach looked more like Twitter's current reach. Even then, the two larger social networks had steadily growing retention rates of more than 40%, which moved closer to 60% as time went on. Twitter's retention rates, on the other hand, have fluctuated without passing 40%.

Twitter's user interface can be confusing to people who aren't familiar with the service, from the hard-to-follow conversation threads to the codes for direct messaging, "retweeting" and "hashtags." Recently, a non-marketing-industry-employed friend of mine sent over an old-fashioned instant message saying she just joined Twitter because "um, pretty much everyone talks about it radio, TV shows, etc." Clearly not seeing its utility, she asked, "What's the big deal?" More than a month later, there remains but one tweet from her: "trying to figure out twitter?"

One the flip side, said Mr. Martin, to "keep people engaged there has to be interesting content. And Oprah, to a large number of Americans, is interesting content. If people continue to stay engaged and are compelled to stay on the site, there's no reason that engagement shouldn't go up. But it's yet to be seen."

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