Friday, June 17, 2011

My Twitter empire falters: temporary blip or terminal decline?

My Twitter empire has become a bit of an obsession, and not a very productive one. I've set up a set of matching Twitter news accounts (like these two), which I rather like - and actually learn useful things from - but not many other people seem to appreciate.

The idea was to make them tweet automatically by directing news links into them using RSS feeds from a news search. They'd attract specialist audiences who would retweet interesting stories, and more people would join.

It's a kind of rerun of an early obsession I had with eBay: could you make money from things you picked up for free? Six years ago, I made a programme called eBay: Money for Old Rope? in which we found out whether you could actually sell old rope on eBay. (You could, up to a point.)

Well this was the same kind of idea: can you get people to follow you on Twitter if you set up accounts that only tweet automatically? It would be amazing if you could; again, the answer (so far) was an inconclusive yes and no.

The initial results were mildly promising. The graph seemed to be going up, but then it stopped, and started going down again. Why? There were several possibilities:

- Perhaps people had twigged that there was nobody posting this stuff, and they felt conned.
- Perhaps I wasn't promoting the accounts enough with retweets and other ways of drawing people's attention to them.
- Third - and this wasn't just a possibility - I noticed the accounts weren't getting new tweets.

I'd been feeding them through Hootsuite, using the RSS of a Google news search, but it had stopped working. I wasn't sure whether that was because Hootsuite had stopped sending Twitter the news, or whether Twitter wasn't posting what Hootsuite sent it.

I had a look through the Twitter rules, but couldn't see anything that suggested there was anything wrong with what I was doing in the eyes of Twitter - so I didn't think Twitter had somehow stopped the posts or frozen the accounts: indeed, I could still post things manually.

I reset the feeds using a Twitterfeed account instead of Hootsuite, and using Yahoo! News searches instead of Google. They started working again, although I suspected that the more complex the search formula (e.g. I had "Amazon - rainforest - river") the less posts were produced.

But restarting the tweets didn't immediately reverse the downward trend in followers.

And I wanted to try some other ideas. So in a flurry of activity last weekend:

- I put all six tech companies from the original accounts together in a new single feed - @TECH_BIZ_TODAY
- I set up a dedicated account for Facebook's public flotation - @FB_IPO
- I added one for the Olympics - @LD2012_TODAY
- And I tried a local news account for East Sheen, in West London - @ES_TODAY

But all of these did even worse than my original six tech business accounts.

I was particularly disappointed about the failure of @TECH_BIZ_TODAY because I felt my promotion of it really should have worked. I used Hootsuite to send out a tweet about it to all my other accounts, with a link to a blog I'd written about it. Strangely the blog got a decent (on my small scale) 45 hits after the tweet went out. But nobody - not a single person - signed up to @TECH_BIZ_TODAY, even though they were already following one of my other tech accounts and should have been interested in the subject.

I thought this was going to be a passive pursuit: just set up the accounts and watch them grow. But it turns out to be more like gardening: in a garden, everything changes rather slowly, and, in theory, should be able to look after itself. Indeed, if you haven't had a garden, it's hard to imagine what there is to do most of the time. It takes a matter of minutes to plant some seeds, for instance, and months for them to grow. But it turns out that there is always something that needs doing.

So with my 'automated' news services: there's always something that could be improved: a better formula for the news source, a strategic retweet, a look at who is following what, more stats to compile. This is all quite fun, but even if it was working well in audience growth, I don't think it would run itself.

But it turns out that  there are people making this kind of thing work: I've come across a few, such as @Lon2012don, which seems to have had the same idea as me - automated news of the Olympics. And this account, after 4,000 tweets, has an impressive 2,500 followers. Its weblink directs its followers to a dedicated sports books page on Amazon, which is presumably how it hopes to make money. I'd love to know the story behind it.

I have learnt a bit out of this, and can't decide whether to stop wasting time on it, or to keep on trying to make it work. I suppose it's less of a waste of time than Farmville, or being addicted to a soap - which is a bit what it's like. It's a soap storyline with numbers: will they go up or down? In fact this morning, 21 days into the experiment, you could look at the graph (below), and decide that after 'bottoming out', the trend is up again. That's what's so intriguing. I'm not going to be able to give up this storyline any time soon.

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