New research from Harvard Business School and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project give new perspective to the social media and social CRM phenomenon and raise a yellow flag for all those people proclaiming social media the second coming.  First Harvard.

The Economist ran one of its special report sections this week (the issue with Steven Jobs dressed as Moses on the cover) on social networking.  While generally laudatory of the technology’s promise — headlines include “Profiting from friendship” and “A peach of an opportunity” — the report also delivered the unvarnished and synamic truth about adoption.

A section titled “Twitter’s transmitters, The magic of 140 characters” quoted the work of Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, a Harvard Business School professor, and one of his MBA students Bill Heil.  According to The Economist, the researchers surveyed more than 300,000 Twitter users in May 2009 and reported results that include:

  • More than half said they tweeted less than once every 74 days (not quite twice per quarter).
  • The most active 10% of twitter users published 90% of all Tweets.

By comparison, the article says that on other social networks, “the most active users typically produce 30% of all content.”  Holy #$%^ Batman!

So who are these people?  According to Pew, they’re the kind of people you might want to have a beer with — when they’re older.  As reported in “Fast Company” Ninety-three percent of teens between 12 and 17 go online, 66% say they text.  The 18 to 29 group also has a 93 percent rank of online users and though the numbers slip for real adults — 81% of those 30 to 49 and 70% of those 50 to 64 — the numbers are very healthy.

Get more numbers here: http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/zachary-wilson/and-how/pew-survey-finds-increase-social-media-internet-time-decrese-blogging-te

The question though is what are these people doing when they are online?  Teens are giving up on blogging, their numbers are about half what they were a few years ago.  Facebook is the big winner for kids and time-starved parents like Twitter.  Only 15% of young adults bother to blog, down nine points over two years.

What’s it all mean?

The Fast Company article ends with this, “Meanwhile, blogging is on the rise for adults over 30, who increased to 11% from 7% in 2007.  And 47% of adults now use social networking sites, up 10% from a year ago.”

It seems the most economically viable demographic is getting its act together but there are caveats.  There are many more readers than writers — that’s not surprising, it’s human nature.  But I think you need to be wary here.  Diane Hessan, CEO of Communispace, likes to remind me that in social networking, participation is very important and knowing the demographics of participation is vital.

The ten percent of Twitter users contributing ninety percent of tweets with more than half logging on very occasionally is a red flag for anyone contemplating social media marketing because it exposes an important truth that membership is not participation.  There is no t enough data on the Twitter users who tweet once per quarter.  Do they go to Twitter daily to read stuff?  I am sure some do, but I wouldn’t want to base a marketing campaign on it.

The decline in blogging is a clear indication that there is, or soon will be, less to read on blogs and less to comment on, though there will be more personal stuff to see on Facebook, if you have a lot of friends.

I have recently seen a number of CRM products that capture such valuable information as a person’s Twitter, Facebook and Blog account information.  The vendors are certain that this information is the source of new insight and business opportunity, even in the B2B space.  I am not.  This data suggests that just as vendors are ramping up, the raw material that they expect to mine may be drying up.  Notwithstanding the 11% of adults over 30 who are blogging more, it seems to me that people are moving to personal expression that may not have a great deal of business utility.

Some of the explanation for this may be the rotten economy but we’re about four months into a turnaround, and numbers complied last May are already becoming obsolete.  Business activity is picking up but it is unclear if people are turning to social media to do their business networking.

The lesson from this, for me, hews close to Hessan’s advice.  You need to understand who is participating — not their names and other identifying data but participation per person or organization, demographic data and the like.  A lot of 17 year old boys might be attracted to the new models on an exotic car site for instance, but you wouldn’t want to develop a marketing campaign for them.

So, what did you think?

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