Twitter: More and More People Use It Less and Less

Last Updated Jun 1, 2011 5:32 PM EDT

Twitter added instant follow buttons to its service yesterday, and 50 sites (including BNET and our sister sites elsewhere at CBS Interactive) have already implemented the feature. It's basically a land grab -- a way for entertainers, celebrities, artists, writers, and even media companies to make it even easier for consumers to fall into their respective orbits. (By, of course, following these consumers to where they happen to be hanging out.)

You can see why Twitter and its power users might be getting a little desperate. According to recent data from the Pew Internet & American Life project, the number of Twitter users is up sharply -- 62.5 percent in the last six months. Yet the amount of time per user is down. Twitter badly needs that number to go back up if it's going to make the revenue that justifies the $360 million it has received in investments.

Twitter recently claimed that the service posts 155 million messages a day, or triple the number last year. The company points to Quantcast's estimate that its worldwide traffic has jumped by 50 percent in the last five months. When you want advertisers to take notice, more eyes is better than fewer.

Twitter's U.S. growth leveling out
However, according to comScore numbers provided by Fortune, growth of U.S. visitors has leveled out -- not a good sign, even if overseas users are increasing. Numbers from other sources aren't any cheerier. According to Experian Hitwise, time per user per month has eroded from 14 minutes and 6 seconds in March 2010 to 12 minutes and 37 seconds in March 2011. Alexa.com shows a similar drop in minutes per user per month, as the graph below shows (click to enlarge):


An even bigger concern is that 47 percent of people with accounts are no longer active on Twitter, according to Experian Hitwise. All these numbers are second hand, of course, but the evidence parallels all those long-standing questions about the user numbers that Twitter quotes. Not exactly what you want to hear when you run a business that hopes to monetize visitors, although you're still not exactly sure how you'll do that.

Twitter needs more people to join and to remain. One way to accomplish that is to make the service a must-use by consumers that want information. That's why getting many people to follow a relatively small number is important, as 90 percent of all messages come from 22.5 percent of all users, according to social media analytics firm Sysomos.

And so, one way for Twitter to keep people coming in to largely listen is to encourage them to follow others who naturally act as channels for information or entertainment. After all, the monetary value ultimately will be in the large number of people who stay and listen, not the few who tweet their heads off. In other words, Twitter wants to become an alternative channel for media and entertainment figures, and the companies that benefit from their having followings.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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