CHART: @iJustine’s Plateau Reveals The True Benefits Of Being On The Twitter Suggested User List

Last night I was involved in a fascinating discussion with Robert Scoble and others on Friendfeed about the merits of Twitter’s controversial suggested users list (SUL).

Robert, who has never been on the SUL, shared his hypothesis that the people on the SUL have an inflated follow count that they cannot replicate on other social networks (Friendfeed, Facebook, etc). He used tech guru Tim O’Reilly as an example. Ultimately, O’Reilly arrived and participated in the debate. I encourage you to read the full thread on Friendfeed.

Why does being on the SUL matter? Predominately, it affords the lucky few a huge advantage in building the numbers of followers in their network. At the beginning of March, Tim O’Reilly had just over 40,000 followers on Twitter.

Check out his chart over the past three months:

For comparative purposes, check out Robert Scoble’s chart for this same period. At the beginning of March, Robert had about 67,000 followers.

The different here is considerable. Scoble had seen an increase in his follower count of about 23,000 – some 32 per cent. Over the same period, O’Reilly has gained about half a million followers, an increase of almost 400 per cent.

To further illustrate the benefits of being part of this elite group, check out the chart of iJustine, who was previously a member of the SUL but was removed for undisclosed reasons.

iJustine has actually lost about 7,000 followers in the past six weeks or so. I cannot find a specific date when she no longer appeared on the SUL, but the chart seems to indicate it was early May. Nobody active on the SUL has a chart like this – the drop in followers is very clearly connected to no longer being featured on the list.

I’ve written before on this blog about the perks for brands and self-promoters in having huge, million-strong networks on Twitter. I’ve also done my own study on click-through rates, and it seems logical that the larger your network, the more clicks you’re going to get to your product pages. But Scoble (and others) have suggested that because the suggested user list is predominately aimed at newcomers to the Twitter network (they’re presented with it when they first sign up), most of the followers that connect with those on the SUL are of the very casual, non-engaging variety that make up the bulk of Twitter’s drop-off rate. In other words, you might end up with a big army, but a lot of ’em are firing blanks.

O’Reilly had this to say about his own experiences:

“And for what it’s worth, the SUL isn’t very useful except for bragging rights. I had about 60K twitter followers when I went on the SUL; my peak click through-rate has perhaps doubled now that I have 10 times as many. Organic followers are what matters, except, as I say, for the media credibility that you get from people who don’t know any better.”

So does this suggest that the criticisms of the SUL are unwarranted? No, because the long-term benefits are not yet apparent – a study by O’Reilly media themselves showed that the average user gained 53,000 followers in their first week after being added to the SUL. This was against an average of about 1,900 followers for the same users the week before. After one month, new users to the SUL see a network gain of about 198,000. If O’Reilly has added almost 500,000 in three months, he could be looking at a couple of million within a year. Yes, a big percentage of those followers will be one-hit wonders, but even if it’s as high as 90 per cent (which seems unlikely), that’s still 200,000 eyeballs.

TechCrunch has stated that Twitter now accounts for about 10 per cent of all their traffic, approximately a third of what they receive from Google. That’s huge.

It’s not fair to single out Tim, as this isn’t really about him per se – it’s about everybody on the list. Specifically, it’s about their ethical responsibility. Scoble proposed that being on the SUL is a “huge gift” from Twitter, and it’s one that has exclusively been given to celebrities and brands, as well as blogs and technical commentators that provide enormous, mostly very positive coverage about the Twitter network. This naturally raises concerns about whether these latter groups can remain impartial. As Dave Winer has noted, it can, and does, change the way people tweet.

“I’m watching a NY Times columnist, who was added to the list last week, leapfrog his competition. It changed the way he posts. (He openly says that, he may have been joking, but you should watch those jokes, they usually reveal some truth, that’s why they’re funny.)”

Winer proposes that those on the list are there because Twitter essentially sees them as ‘safe’, and people like him and Scoble are far too unpredictable, and might say something that Twitter isn’t comfortable with. The problem with this, he adds, is that probability suggests that ultimately somebody already on the SUL is going to say something bad (maybe iJustine already did), and Twitter is going to be stuffed.

This is probably something we should hope for, as perhaps only then will the SUL become fully accountable. Twitter needs to publish the reasons why person A makes the SUL while person B does not. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and if it’s simply because the people in the list are unlikely to say anything negative about Twitter, then it’s really completely and utterly worthless as a recommendation tool. It’s one thing to add Oprah to the list, as she’s a huge deal and Twitter would have been foolish not to take advantage of her interest for their own gain, but what about the commercial opportunities afforded to Dell, Jetblue Airways, CNN, Wholefoods and other brands? Why include Tech Blog A over Tech Blog B? And what in God’s name is Newt Gingrich doing on there?

Many moons ago I proposed that the SUL should be scrapped and be replaced with a different system made up of purchased ‘impressions’, where anybody could buy a number of rotations of their Twitter profile per month. What’s the value of being on the SUL? Jason Calacanis ruffled a few feathers back in March when he offered Twitter $250,000 for two years on their suggested user list, later revising this to $500,000 for three. Twitter turned him down, but they missed a real opportunity here, but it’s one that, I think, is still available. And significantly fairer.

Twitter needs money. Monetize the list. Make it open to everybody. Perhaps it could run a little like Google Adsense, where you buy impressions but only get charged if somebody follows you. Or just charge a flat-out fee – even a million dollars is a bargain for the brand or blog that ends up with a million followers. That’s $1 per user, per year, and you can hit them as many times as you like, 24/7, 365 days in a row. Where else in marketing do you see this kind of value?

And if they get fed up and unfollow you, don’t worry about it. Because by this time next week, Twitter will have found another 53,000 to take their place. And the next week. And the next week. And the next week…

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