Previously, a person's influence on Twitter was thought to correlate directly to the number of followers. Advertisers even pay popular Tweeters to post ads in their Tweets. But, according to a new study by Meeyoung Cha of the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany, having many followers does not make a Tweeter influential.
Cha's Twitter study, called "The Million Follower Fallacy," supports earlier research suggesting that the number of Twitter followers is meaningless. "Popular users who have a high indegree [number of followers] are not necessarily influential in terms of spawning retweets or mentions," Cha writes, quoted in the Harvard Business Review.
From the study's abstract:
[U]sing a large amount of data collected from Twitter, we present an in-depth comparison of three measures of influence: indegree, retweets, and mentions. Based on these measures, we investigate the dynamics of user influence across topics and time. We make several interesting observations. First, popular users who have high indegree are not necessarily influential in terms of spawning retweets or mentions. Second, most influential users can hold significant influence over a variety of topics. Third, influence is not gained spontaneously or accidentally, but through concerted effort such as limiting tweets to a single topic. We believe that these findings provide new insights for viral marketing
and suggest that topological measures such as indegree alone reveals very little about the influence of a user.
The dataset consisted of 2 billion follow links among the 54 million Twitter users, though there was a strong focus on the most active Tweeters.
"As we showed in our paper," Cha told HBR, "retweets and mentions, which measure the audience responsiveness to a user's tweets, do not correlate strongly with number of followers." They also found that active Tweeters made up "only a fraction" of Twitter users, yet these active users "provoke responses (mentions) and initiate information cascades (retweets)."
Since, as Cha's data shows, Tweets that reach a large audience don't necessarily affect that audience's opinions, Cha suggests that businesses rethink how they implement sponsored Tweets. "[R]ather than trying to put emphasis on the follower count, [businesses] could try to increase audience responsiveness in their fields," she added.