I read Henry Blodget's Business Insider article, "Here's Twitter's Big Problem: It's Not Going Mainstream," and it made me reflect on how we define the word "mainstream," because by any definition I can think of that matters, Twitter is already mainstream.
Henry's article isn't incorrect in its assessment of Twitter's challenges for growth. The microblog does tend to appeal more to those in tech circles than others, and it has a relatively high barrier to entry because it works best after you've dedicated time to find, follow and list the people you care to track. But it is the way Henry equates traffic and users to mainstream that makes me think we might need a different yardstick by which to measure mainstream.
According to the article, Twitter has 145 million users worldwide, but Twitter.com only welcomes slightly less than 29 million unique users each month. On this basis, it might seem to be more niche than mainstream, but if 29 million is not mainstream, then neither is:
- The New York Times, with its embarrassingly trifling circulation of just 1.4 million copies on Sundays,
- American Idol, which drew for its season opener about the same number of people as visit Twitter on a monthly basis, or
- "How to Train Your Dragon," considered a box office blockbuster with grosses of more than $200 million in the U.S., but that means it sold fewer tickets than arrive at Twitter each month (based on the average 2010 ticket price of $7.88).
My point is that "mainstream" isn't really determined by sheer numbers but by cultural impact, and in this regard is there any question of whether Twitter is mainstream? Consider…
- Mainstream news (like FoxNews, with its piddly little 1.7 million prime time viewers), routinely reports on what is being said on Twitter as part of stories such as today's New Zealand earthquake. Once again, Twitter has proven a more immediate and available source for world happenings than any other channel, with the first images broadcast via Twitter.
- Movie studios are having to revamp marketing practices because Twitter has become an instantaneous movie review system each weekend.
- While Rolling Stone magazine delivered the story about Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's disparaging comments, the political damage was done before the article even hit newsstands. Why? Said a Rutgers media professor, "Rolling Stone broke the story, but it was Twitter that got the story rolling."
- After the Haiti earthquake, the American Red Cross received more than $35 million in donations in less than 48 hours. This record-breaking fundraising effort was due to social media, and a spokesperson said, "Twitter has played an extremely significant part."
- Finally, in my upcoming Forrester report on advocacy programs, I note that mass influencers–those responsible for 80 percent of the influence impressions and posts about products and services in social channels–are several times more likely to have a Twitter account than the general population. Those on Twitter are the connected of the connected, and they are having an impact on mainstream culture.
Twitter may never have 500 million users like Facebook, but I hardly believe that means it cannot be "mainstream." In fact, it is funny to observe that Henry's article mentions Lady Gaga's Twitter following is 5.7 million strong and notes, "To put the number in context, according to Wikipedia, Lady Gaga has sold 15 million albums." Just 15 million? That's half of Twitter's monthly uniques! Apparently Ms. Gaga is still niche, and maybe someday if she's really lucky she'll get big and go mainstream!