A few days ago, I read an article citing a recently published study by the Harvard Business School which concluded that only ten per cent of Twitter’s six million subscribers are active posters. This led many commentators to muse that influence amongst typical Twitter users is extremely top heavy and concentrated in the hands of a few users. However, the influence of infrequent users, or weak links to use network analysis terminology, was dramatically brought to the fore in the widespread protests over the Iranian elections yesterday. The unique power of Twitter to provide real-time information from vast numbers of people including activists, demonstrators and journalists on the ground was astonishing. Reports indicated that certain hash tags, including #iranelection and #gr88 generated over 30 Tweets per minute at its apogee.

Watching the vast number of Tweets emerge on my TweetDeck yesterday, I could not help but think that perhaps the findings of the Harvard study needed to be questioned. The study, which polled over 300,000 users, concluded, amongst other things, that the top ten per cent of “prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets. On a typical social network, the top 10% of users accounted for 30% of all production”. Significant social events such as the G20 riots and the Mumbai terrorist attacks, when vast numbers of people used the service to both disseminate and receive information, surely demonstrated that there is no such thing as a “typical” Twitter user and, more importantly, that the categorisation of “influential” users on this social network platform needs to be reconsidered.

Having helped companies and organisations both create and implement their social media and online stakeholder engagement programmes for some years now, one of the first things I stress is the need to adapt to the constantly shifting social media landscape. Stakeholder communities change very quickly, as seen above, and companies that understand and adapt their online communications strategies accordingly more often than not reap benefits. Looking for some examples of that point, I was impressed by the social media strategies of the US Army and US Air Force, which have yielded demonstrable returns on investment such as increases in recruits and better relations with their stakeholders. When taking the time to understand the composition of their online stakeholders, both organisations devised social media strategies which focused on building relationships with various communities.

If Twitter and the Iranian election reminded me that online groups and communities are not static, but dynamic and ever-changing, these organisations highlighted that a bottom-up approach to PR using conversational media which focuses on adaptation and engagement, can yield success.