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Twitter success thrives on narrow focus, study finds

Want to build a large Twitter following? Stay on one topic, a Carnegie Mellon researcher advises

By Joab Jackson
May 9, 2012 10:37 AM ET

IDG News Service - Those looking to build a substantial following on Twitter would do well to stick to one particular topic, rather than use Twitter to discuss a wide range of subjects, a Carnegie Mellon University researcher has advised.

Twitter accounts that stay focused on a particular topic garner more followers than those that cover a wider variety of topics, according to a study conducted by Carnegie Mellon Language Technologies Institute researcher Yi-Chia Wang.

Yi-Chia discussed her findings at the Association for Computing Machinery's Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, being held this week in Austin, Texas.

With Twitter becoming a popular promotional platform for both organizations and individuals, work such as Yi-Chia's could help users get the most from their involvement with the service. At last count, Twitter had more than 140 million users. Not everyone uses it effectively however -- 25% of Twitter users have no followers at all, Yi-Chia said.

By keeping focused to a single topic, a Twitter user can attract other people who are also interested in that topic. Those people may then connect with one another, to generate further discussion and build a community around the topic, Yi-Chia said.

This line of thinking might go against the conventional wisdom of discussing as many topics as possible in order to attract a broader audience, a common practice with other forms of media. "Diverse topics can potentially appeal to more people. A political blog may [cover] a wide range of potential topics -- such as foreign policy, economy or the presidential election -- so it may appeal to people who care about any of these topics," she said.

Such thinking doesn't hold up on Twitter though, at least in Yi-Chia's study. A narrower focus, "although potentially would attract fewer people" would also attract people with similar interests, ones who would "more easily identify themselves with the [Twitter account] and better anticipate what they can get" from subscribing, she suggested.

In her study, Yi-Chia studied how 480 active Twitter users fared in their first year of service. On average, these users posted 1,574 messages.

Success was defined by two factors. One factor was how many followers a user attracted. But Yi-Chia also looked at social tie density, or the degree to which followers also subscribed to fellow followers. Social tie density is a good indicator of the size of a community around a Twitter user.

To determine how closely a Twitter user kept to a single topic, Yi-Chia used a statistical method called average pairwise cosine similarity, or AvgCosSim, which measures the degree to which multiple sets of text, such as groups of Twitter messages, share common words. When people talk about a single topic, they tend to use the same words, Yi-Chia explained. U.S. conservatives discussing the topic of health care, for instance, frequently use words such as "Obama," "Obamacare," "socialism," and "repeal" for instance. The higher the AvgCosSim score, the more likely the Twitter messages being analyzed were on a single topic.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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