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100,000 Twitter Followers

How we got there and why it matters. 

@frogdesign passed the 100K Twitter mark recently. We’re proud. That’s a big audience — bigger than some of the world’s largest brands (Coca Cola has 87K, Amazon has 25K, and Virgin Atlantic has 9K), and much larger than other design and innovation firms in our space. We opened the account on February 17, 2009, which is just over 18 months ago. Most astounding, however, is that in January 2010 we had 10,000 followers, which means we increased that number by 900% in eight months — or about 3,500 followers a month. It's a hockey stick graph.

Sometimes, we as a marketing team are asked both inside and outside the company, “How are you doing this?” We even still get the question, “Why are you doing this?” They are necessary questions, and, of course, it’s not possible to point to one thing or effort or measurement when talking about either. Based on our experience over the past year, here are a few thoughts on the matter.

Social media doesn’t exist in a vacuum
If there’s one truth to this milestone, it’s that a social network doesn’t exist on its own. Unless you’re a pop star with an audience already in place like LeBron James, who opened a Twitter account and got 650,000 followers in seven weeks, I believe it’s impossible to attract such a following without also having an ecosystem of complimentary initiatives in place, namely a rich and always-fresh supply of content to share, a community of actual people that you actually talk to (not just Twitter accounts), and a dedicated person or team to care for and feed the social media conversation (hat tip to my colleague and our Content and Community Manager, Kristina Loring).

In some ways, the social media — the social sharing, support, and broadcasting of content — is a reflection of the social sharing of knowledge within the ecosystem itself. In the past, this was known as teamwork. Today, it’s known as “being a social company.” 

Here’s an example of that ecosystem in play within our marketing team: Earlier this year, one of our Principal Designers, Laura Richardson, had an idea for a talk about the future of children’s games. We pitched her idea to the organizers of this year’s MIT’s Sandbox Summit. We also suggested to the organizers that conference goers might like a complimentary copy of our design mind print magazine in their goodie bags, and that members of our content team could attend the event with Laura and file reports about the conference on our blog platform, while also tweeting to our substantial number of followers (at the time, the count was 50K). The organizers signed up for the entire package. Laura was selected to give a keynote at a conference and we helped broadcast the word from the various talks, while also making key contacts for potential business leads and attracting new followers to our Twitter and design mind platforms. Soon after the event, we posted Laura’s presentation to Slideshare and shared it through our monthly newsletter. Soon after that Laura was invited to speak at another conference, whose organizers had seen and read about her MIT presentation.

This is the kind of knowledge cycle that repeats itself often, in ever expanding circles of influence and reach. Or at least, that’s the idea. It’s easy to see how you can add additional elements to the cycle to make it more rich, with more touchpoints for a more varied audience. For example, we often invite members of our business development team to join conferences. Sometimes the press picks up on our tweets or blogs and writes about our speakers or syndicates our posts.

So, one answer the question of how we got 100,000 Twitter followers is, simply, “people.” In fact, I would go so far as to say that all social media starts and ends with people. It’s always tempting to get distracted by the medium in any new technology or platform, perhaps more so with Twitter because it’s much harder to write short than to write long, but the medium is not the thing. It’s what you get through the medium (read: community, knowledge, connection, meaning). 

With great followers comes great responsibility
There is a reason people continue to follow us on Twitter, just as there is a reason conferences want our magazine at their events or indeed, why people want to continue to do business with us. They trust us. If anything, reaching the 100,000 follower mark on Twitter is a reminder of the responsibility we have to be thoughtful curators of relevant news, trends, and debates, even when those debates involve our competitors.

It’s humbling and rewarding to think that our community of thinkers, designers, idea makers, innovators, students, media experts, tech gurus, and curators want to know what we think, and that they follow us because they trust that we will listen to them and continue to highlight and frame the type of information they want, including articles on social innovation, strategy, and design trends, as well as remarkable quotes, interesting stats, infographics, and live updates from conferences and events. They may also like it when we pose provocative questions to stir up conversation. This mix enables our followers to re-tweet our content confidently. In short, it provides our audience with a way to meaningfully engage with frog.

What about ROI?
The “why” part of the question — the question that many business executives want to know — continues to be an important one. Why does 100,000 Twitter followers matter to business? Ironically, now that we have reached that milestone, the question of why becomes more important.

Measuring social media ROI — like many marketing functions — is a little slippery because it’s still considered by many to be a soft measurement of value. In fact, there are very few ways of doing the actual measuring. Still, there are tangential indicators of clear value. For example, in addition to negotiating favorable conference sponsorships because of our content platform (as mentioned before), some clients are more favorable to co-PR opportunities in light of our audience. Most interesting, however — and this gets to the heart of the social media value — now that frog has reached 100,000 followers, we are officially considered an “influencer” by analyst firm Forrester, which means we can augment conversations on the Social Web, instantly broadcast content to a wide, relevant audience, and use that reach as an asset in our relationships with clients and conferences.

This way of rewarding and valuing “influence” seems to be resonating in the ROI conversation among businesses looking to rationalize whey they should devote people and time to building a social media platform. In some ways, it resembles Cory Doctorow’s idea of “whuffie,” which is a word he coined in his book Down And Out In the Magic Kingdom. It refers to the measurement of respect or karma a person gains or looses in their lives. In Doctorow’s future, humans have implants in their brains that visually project their whuffie, which has replaced money as currency.

The same could be said about brand influence. What others think about your brand is (and always has been) a means to make or break business deals. If you can build a measureable audience of hundreds of thousands of trusted listeners and contributors through social media such as Twitter, then you ought to be able to measure influence, and influence ought to be valuable.

Some have called the measurement of influence “Sentiment Analysis.” The marketing and branding firm Razorfish calls it Social Influence Marketing or SIM, and they’ve created a way to give company’s a SIM score. Other tools that rate social media influence for companies include Viral Heat, and Klout. In Klout, for example, frog is now labeled a “connector.” According to them, we are “a constant source of information to… friends and co-workers, “ and our “taste and opinion is respected and [our] judgment is trusted.”

At the root of this idea is brand building and brand value, but not in the traditional way that brands have always been built, through talk-at-you top-down marketing. These days brands are built by how often people talk about that brand and what they say about it ON A DAILY BASIS.

So, we’ve learned a lot over the past 18 months but we know we have more to understand. Much more. And we look to our growing community to help us figure it out. To those who helped us reach this milestone, and to have this ongoing conversation, thank you. It’s good to have friends you can talk to. 

Sam is the director of publishing for frog where he oversees frog's global content, editorial, and digital publishing strategy. He is also the editor of design mind, frog's print and online media platform. Sam is the author of numerous books of non fiction and has written for Dwell, Metropolis, GOOD, and other magazines.