Update: When I wrote the post 10 days ago, I had no idea that Twitter would, so soon again, become a crucial platform for global engagement with the attacks in France. Not to mention the place where, as Frank Bruni at the New York Times points out, clicker-happy pundits would again make fools of themselves.
I've often thought that if Twitter, for all its beleaguered current status, didn't exist, we'd have to invent it. What was everyone's first reaction to Fox Sports going down during Game One of the World Series? That's right: Log on to Twitter. What about when a Kardashian does something outrageous? Check it out on Twitter. And where do politicians hash out their respective positions? Twitter, of course.
Twitter's perhaps the world's first essential utility. With the glaring exception of China, it's where the bulk of humanity goes when the chips are down outside their house, where they seek unfiltered access to the court of global public opinion. If newspapers were once "the first rough draft of history," then Twitter's the class notes. Just as important, although less obvious, it's the backbone of what we call "social listening," the hottest of all social business categories and perhaps the most game changing. If it weren't for Twitter, there would be no "social listening".
One of the questions I frequently ask brand practitioners of social at big companies when they're guests of #SMTLive, or when I'm on panels these days, is "who at your company sees your social data? Who actually cruises past the Command Center?" This was something that our friend, and Social Shake-Up speaker, Andrew Bowins understood when we first visited MasterCard's Social Command Center, strategically planted in the very center of the I.M. Pei-designed atrium at their world headquarters in New York. Bowins noted that the fact that key executives regularly stroll past the boards that capture the conversations about the brand from all over the world - and in real-time - had enormous implications for the culture of the company.
Moreover, social listening is one of the fasting-growing segments of "social tech" - witness the recent funding round for a leader like Brandwatch, or Hootsuite achieving "Unicorn" status. Even traditional brands in industries like pharma and financial companies can "listen", even if they're hamstrung at responding or publishing.
And what is the core of social listening? Twitter, hands down, of all the platforms. Facebook has become very sparing in its released data, LinkedIn never shared, and while Instagram and Pinterest are joining in on global listening, their audiences are still discrete and not text-centered. If you still believe that listening implies speech, then these are not the platforms you can rely on.
Our friend Tim Hayden at Zignal Labs, which analyzes Twitter data alongside television, print and lots of other digital media sources, says that "for each brand and it's parts, it would be difficult to proclaim Twitter as the end-all source for data. Because Twitter is the largest public social network, it certainly is a consistent treasure trove (my emphasis) of insights and observations. I see the rise of visual and video content shared from accredited media sources and individual Twitter users only making the network a more valuable source for business intelligence and market research".
Now of course, with Twitter's (GNIP's) announcement that they will no longer freely share their share stats, this could all be about to change. The move could eliminate some of the smaller listening platforms - but more importantly, it sets a cautious precedent. Or it may open the way for some players to make money off what GNIP is providing to them. But regardless, and for the foreseeable future, without Twitter there would be no social listening. True enough, as listening platforms have expanded to include print publications and even broadcast television and news, the largest single source of their data is Twitter. Some platforms perform extremely well with only Twitter to identify memes, keywords and influencers. Twitter actively supported this access with its 2012 acquisition of GNIP.
"The greatest impact of the GNIP acquisition is that no one company is privileged in its access to Twitter data," says Hayden. "There were certain tools and platforms that worked with Twitter prior to 2012 that enjoyed access to Twitter's archives and other associated data flowing through the network that many other tools did not. Today, GNIP makes these features, and more, available for qualified companies at a number of price points."
This is in contrast to how Facebook and LinkedIn play: "Each social network has different arrangements for provisioning their data to third parties. We've found public APIs to be unreliable and susceptible to interruption, and the varying degrees to which data is shared beyond general media performance makes each opportunity to monitor social media unique. The rule still applies, though - a business will only find something of value in social data if it knows what they wish to either find or discover," says Hayden.
Listening, of course, is only half of it: there's also an increased reliance on Twitter for social customer service. As Twitter's global marketing head Daina Middleton notes, "Twitter data powers companies in so many ways today, from companies who use the data as their core business model, to those who use it to improve existing business approaches. For example, Twitter is a hub of customer service activity. Every day, people connect directly with airlines, mobile carriers, retailers, app developers and others to get help. According to Social Bakers, 80% of customer service requests on social happen on Twitter." And that's a subject for another post. But for news value, there is no other substitute.
"There is no doubt that news ends up on Twitter, no matter where it started or was born. It's undeniable that Twitter has become the glue and the connective tissue of the media world," says Hayden.
Written with help and advice from Andrew Hutchinson, SMT Content Hacker