Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Going local automatically on Twitter: an experiment

Just over a year ago I set up a collection of Twitter accounts, fed automatically with tweets on different subjects from a news aggregator. As I wrote here, most of them haven't exactly taken off.

But if there was a lesson from the experiment, it's that local-focussed accounts are a better bet than other subjects. The most popular of my collection is East Sheen News (below), which has 123 followers. Not many, but actually more than any other East Sheen account - even those written by real people rather than fed automatically.

Encouraged by that, I also started, for the same locality, Barnes News (52 followers) and Mortlake News (18 followers). A collection of geographically-related accounts gives me the advantage of being able to retweet between them as a kind of cross-promotion.

Their follower numbers are in proportion to the length of time time the accounts have existed, the number of tweets and the amount of attention I've given them (I occasionally tweet 'real' tweets to supplement the automated ones).

If you want to start a local news site or Twitter feed with automated content, it helps to pick somewhere whose name is only the name of the place: so setting up a search for news stories with "East Sheen" in will almost always produce the right kind of results, whereas "Barnes" can produce stories about the footballer, or other things that aren't the Barnes you're looking for.

Inevitably stories do appear which have nothing to do with the area: for instance, Richmond Park is another of my search terms for these accounts, and it turns out there's a Richmond Park in Norfolk, so stories about that pop up. Sometimes I get tweets from clever clogs accusing me of being an automated feed. I like to reply with a gracious apology, admitting that it's all automated and, well, you know what those automated searches are like...

What's fun about this kind of account is acquiring an spurious reputation as a local opinion-former. Several local businesses, such as pubs and restaurants, have asked me to retweet something they're trying to promote. I even got invited to the opening of a local restaurant.

I've never said who I am in my accounts, and nobody has ever asked. Which makes me wonder if I could just as easily start one for, say, a small town overseas. Could I become an opinion-former somewhere thousands of miles away, maybe somewhere I've never been?

Well, as I said, none of these accounts exactly hit the jackpot.

Another idea I had to create a network of interest was to pick an event some months hence and set up a Twitter account, thinking it might pick up momentum as the event came into the media spotlight.

So last year I set up FacebookIPOnews and LD2012_today (about the Olympics).

Again, disappointing: the Olympics picked up just 40 followers in a year (below) - but, like the other accounts, with no work from me except the 15 minutes or so it took to set up on day one:

My second event-related account, FacebookIPOnews, picked up just 8 followers, which is extraordinarily poor: I've seen accounts which have never tweeted that have more followers that than. This is real mystery: FacebookIPOnews has been churning out pretty relevant news links (1903 in all), to no effect. None of my other accounts has anything as low as that kind of number: I just don't know what the explanation is. My Facebook News, for instance, has 55 followers - with a similar amount of non-effort.

So overall, my Twitter experiment was interesting but didn't uncover a way to achieve influence without putting in the hours.

The only place where I've succeeded in building a more substantial audience with very little work is on Pinterest, where my Places As They Used To Be board has built 2356 followers in much less time than the above accounts. More about the curious process behind that next time.

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