Why don’t more tweets get @replies or retweets?

As Jennifer Van Grove wrote at Mashable yesterday, “research shows that 71% of all tweets produce no reaction — in replies or retweets — which suggests an overwhelming majority of our tweets fall on deaf ears.”

Sysomos, maker of social media analysis tools, looked at 1.2 billion tweets over a two-month period to analyze what happens after we publish our tweets to Twitter. Its research shows that 71% of all tweets produce no reaction — in the form of replies or retweets — which suggests that an overwhelming majority of our tweets fall on deaf ears.

Sysomos findings also highlight that retweets are especially hard to come by — only 6% of all tweets produce a retweet (the other 23% solicit replies).

I’ll admit, this doesn’t shock me, based upon my experience over the years.

Many of my tweets are retweeted but then I have above-average reach at @digiphile and engaged followers.

I know I’m an outlier in many respects there, and that the community that I follow and interact with likely is as well.

This research backs that anecdotal observation up: people are consuming information rather than actively interacting with it. But my own experience doesn’t gibe with that greater truth, and that’s why I chimed in, even though I know it may expose me to more of my friend Jack Loftus‘ withering snark. (If you don’t read him at Gizmodo you’re missing out.)

Why Don’t People @Reply more?

So what’s going on? I have a couple of theories. The first is that @replies are much like comments. Most people don’t make either. Even though social networking has shifted many, many more people into a content production role through making status updates to Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare (and now perhaps LinkedIn), the 90-9-1 rule or 1% rule still appears to matter most of the social Web. Participation inequality is not a new phenomenon.

That scope of that online history suggests that the behaviors of yesteryear aren’t completely subsumed by the explosion of a more social Web. Twitter and Facebook do appear to have diminished long form blogging activity or comments on posts, as netizens have moved their meta commentary to external social networks. And even there, recent Forrester research suggest that social networking users are creating less content.

In other words, it’s not that Facebook or Twitter sucks, it’s that human behavior is at issue.

It’s not that Twitter or its employees or developers per se are at fault, though you can see where, for example, Quora or Vark are expressly designed to create question and answer threads.

It’s that, for better or worse, the culture of the people using Twitter is expressed in how they use it, including the choice to reply, RT or otherwise engage.

If the service is going to grow into an “information utility” and become a meaningful venue with respect to citizen engagement with government, the evolution of #NewTwitter may need to add better mechanisms to encourage that interaction.

So is Twitter useful?

As Tom Webster pointed out at his blog [Hat tip to @Ed]:

As a researcher, if I were writing this headline, I would have written it thusly: “Nearly 3 in 10 Tweets Provoke A Reaction.”

I follow about 3,000 people on Twitter. If we assume that this lot posts five tweets per week (a conservative figure), that’s 15,000 tweets I could see in a given week, were I to never peel my eyes away from Tweetdeck. The Sysomos data suggests that of those 15,000 tweets, 4,350 were replied to or at least retweeted. See, I think that’s actually a big number.

In other words, 29% of tweets do get a response. That’s better than the direct mail or email marketing, as far as I know. I don’t expect a response from every tweet, though I’ve been guilty of that expectation in past years. That’s why I often ask the same question more than once now, or tweet stories again, or why I’ll syndicate a given post, video or picture into multiple networks.

I continue to find Twitter a useful tool for my profession. While inbound Web traffic from Twitter is negligible when compared to Google, Facebook, StumpleUpon or even Fark, I’ve found it useful for sourcing, sentiment analysis, Q&A, a directory, a direct line to officials and executives, and of course for distributing my writing. Twitter may not be essential in the same sense that a cellphone, camera, notebook and an Internet connection are in my work but I’ve found it to be a valuable complement to those tools. I’ve definitely sourced stories, gathered advice or recommendations through crowdsourcing questions there, with far less effort than more traditional means.


Filed under blogging, government 2.0, microsharing, research, social bookmarking, social media, technology, Twitter

15 responses to “Why don’t more tweets get @replies or retweets?

  1. I am with you on that one … I have also noticed that engagement decreased on both networks, although I am rather a Facebook than a twitter junkie :-)

    Another explanation might be the growth of the 2 networks over the last year, yielding to much much more information (tweets and FB updates) the average person has to deal with daily. So that many of the tweets and updates simply pass unread, while most of those who manage to reach the eye, are just roughly “scanned”.

    It also has to do with people’s ability to engage, and this goes much deeper than human interaction on social networks, it is rather a measure of human ability and willingness to engage in general.

    What we witness, is that social networks get closer to reach a certain level of “saturation” where people do not perceive it a “novelty” factor any more and tend to become a passive consumer, just as they did with the TV.

    And this is NOT a good sign unfortunately … in the same time it shows that maybe the “pick” was reached and we are already on the down slope now, pointing out to the need of something new, a fresh concept to emerge and take us to the next level!

    Anyone willing to reply? (read “engage”)?

    • Mary,
      I’m not sure I agree with the “saturation” theory – Twitter usage and smartphone/mobile usage both continue to be on the rise – and so there is still much “novelty” to be experienced. And in general I don’t think this report says engagement is decreasing, just that it’s currently around 29% – which, if you consider the 90/10 rule of participation, seems to me to indicate that Twitter is one of the most highly engaging platforms in existence!

  2. Great analysis and I agree with your points.

    I also think it’s a function of using the right tools and following strategy. If you follow 5,000 random people, you’ll be hard pressed to engage in meaningful @reply conversations.

    Twitter lists and Tweetdeck columns, for example, can help target specific topics and users, but I doubt the majority of folks take advantage of these tools and features for the purpose of @replying.

  3. Now I feel compelled to write a comment. :) You’re absolutely right, humans are mercurial beings with fleeting notions of what’s new and interesting and what’s worth acknowledging. How much contact is enough and are we evolving into beings who appreciate asymmetric more than symmetric interaction. (There’s an entire generation of folks out there who don’t like to use phones for their original purpose…)

    I have been giving consideration to comments and @replies and wondering if we need a more direct approach to them or a more immediate one. Sure, the fire hose is out there spraying all of us with wave upon wave of information, but it seems there’s something in us compelling us to see it out. Are we happy just consuming? Clay Shirky and others refute this idea. They believe in a constructive web with greatly increased data transfer. I think it’s a bit more complicated than that, and the answer lies somewhere along the line of psychological limits and personal communication expectations. While business thinking likes to divide people into consumers and creators, we’re actually more likely a bit of both depending on the context. Context can create motivation as politics continually proves.

    I could go on and on—and I hope to on my own site in a future post. It’s safe to say that your thinking has released some deeper thoughts to the surface of my consciousness. Thanks for that.

  4. dan

    It’s called “threaded Tweets” or “threaded conversations” and other than some now defunct mobile apps, it’s been sorely lacking on Twitter.

    Twitter recently hired a guy who’d run a platform with threaded Tweets and brought him in-house.

    Presumably, that will show some focus, along with their #NewTwitter on turning Twitter into more of a conversational platform than mini-Billboard platform.

  5. I sometimes wonder if our online community is starting to suffer from excessive “sprawl.” Just like our cities find there best citizens are migrating to the suburbs – people seem to be moving away from long form content creation.

    Long and developed ideas are quickly replaced with short new ones. It’s much easier to tweet a link to a story than to offer an analysis on how you feel about it in a blog post.

    Where there used to be small communities of bloggers that developed stronger professional relationships there are now massive communities with much weaker ties.

    I don’t follow a huge number of people on twitter, however, it can be very difficult to track what’s going on without being very well organized. I agree that the medium needs some thought if governments want to use it to really engage citizens.

  6. Here is my pet theory:

    The people who RT and answer are usually leaders who make up less than 2% of the population. Of those 2%, the majority only do what benefits THEM.

    The perhaps 2% of that 2% are the people I choose to know and collaborate with – the ones who with RT and answer because it benefits OTHERS for them to do so.

    I hope anyone in that 2% of 2% will pop by and say hello. There are many others to whom I would like to introduce you.

    This is based on one of my favorite quotes the source of which I can not remember or find:

    2% of people think; 3% THINK they think; and 95% would rather DIE than think.

  7. P.S. Most Tweets won’t be acted on because they are never seen. They fly by on our timelines. The ones I see and act on are @GrowMap tweets so if you really want someone to RT or act on what you tweet I recommend you send it directly to them using @TheirUserName.

    • Great point, Gail – this makes it all the more impressive that the “response rate” on tweets is as high as 29%. What this probably means is that the social graphs on Twitter are quite dense – while tweets may not be seen by you, every follower (and List follower I should add) increases the chance that it will be seen.

      Also keep in mind that many tweets are seen but never “acted upon”. Just because there is no response in the form of a @reply or retweet doesn’t mean the tweet wasn’t seen by many people. Perhaps it was a simple thought, well-made point, etc, and simply didn’t provoke a response from those who read it. Saying these tweets fell on “deaf ears” would not be accurate.

      One truly fascinating thing about Twitter is that unlike web pages, there is no way to tell whether a given tweet was viewed, or if so, how many viewed it. Thus, we can’t actually answer this question of whether tweets “fall on deaf ears” and are “never seen”.

  8. Sasha

    Many folks like to take a credit (I am empathetically pointing a finger at myself) for someone else’s tweet, thus failing to provide the original or an intermediary source. Therefore, the percentage of @reply to total number of tweets may not reflect the true ratio, only a perceived ratio.

  9. KMBTweets

    Great piece – makes me feel better about my low reply/retweet rate! Though I would also love strategies to increase it, as I am trying to connect with others passionate about the same issues I am, but need viral help to find them. Anyone know how I can tweet to entice people’s retweets so I can find biotech/food&drug experts to join my nonprofit team? Any and all ideas will be appreciated!

  10. Maybe if the new twitter (that one including those nice previews in the right panel) could be extended with a function like threaded tweets, that would encourage the conversation on various topics. The way twitter is built now, makes is nearly impossible to achieve that.
    Ok, one can use #hashtags for following a certain topic, but that is just not enough and one still gets lost among thousands of completely irrelevant tweets who’s only merit is to include a hashtag n their tweet.

  11. Most of my tweets are retweeted or replied to, much like yours are. Part of it is, as you say, that we have a substantial number of followers and they tend to be the types of users who are engaged (they are on Twitter to get and provide information).

    But there’s also another set of math that I think needs to be thrown into this mix so that it’s more of an algorithm than simply a percentage. I’m not sure if I’m thinking it through exactly right as I’m in Japan and my brain is fuzzy from either too much or wrongly timed sleep, but I would think that as a person gains more followers, the likelihood that any single tweet of theirs will be retweeted. So if I have 10k followers, then I’ll get 100 RTs/replies if that tweet engages 1% of them. (And you probably have to include some factor for how many followers each of your followers have, but I’m way too jet lagged to even attempt that one.)

    The point being that for those who have 50 followers, 1% engagement is less than one person RTing or repling on average.

    That math might get you better numbers in terms of how many replies/RTs are out there, but in terms of simply getting engagement at all with tweets, are more than 29% of them candidates for engagement?

    If you look at how many people use Twitter (not how we use Twitter), they are simply saying things like “had a great day” or “go Packers!”. One way of using Twitter is not better than the other, but those types of tweets just don’t necessarily have as much cause to be RTed or replied to (unless perhaps you have followers who are Cowboys fans).

    So thinking about how many tweets have engagement potential, engagement is even higher than it seems.

    I also don’t know that the declining percentage of content creation on social networks is as it seems. In the early days of the internet, the early adopters of these systems were those who wanted to try new things, who were creators and innovators, who were participating in order to create, be seen, etc. As the number of people who are on social networks increases, many of the newer-comers just don’t have those same motivations. So it makes sense that the overall percentage of those who are actively creating would go down.

  12. I found the breakdown in @reply vs RT interesting, as the “new” RT comes down to a “like” — a terribly low-effort thing for people to do.

    That 23% actually solicit an @reply I think is exciting. It reflects recent studies that Twitter users are more engaged then those of Facebook or other platforms.

    It will be interesting with the continued wider adoption of Twitter if this statistic changes — meaning is it the user base, or the medium that gets this engagement.

    I would estimate that we will see the low-effort (RT) grow as a percentage, but can’t wait to see.

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