Twitter: A Mythological Giant?

Twitter is now daily global phenomenon, fuelling everything from celebrity profiles to national revolutions.

The media is obsessed with it, and everyone seems to be on it. But what is the real story behind the phenomenon?

Since its launch in 2006, the number of Twitter users has soared. There are now 255m users of the site worldwide.


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As well as soaring it has also floated, opening on the US stock market last November at a staggering £11bn (which has since doubled).


Twitter’s rise has even brought a previously mythological creature to life. Once thought to live under bridges, trolls now have a new home, and only ever spit their bile in 140 characters or less.


But it’s not just old myths Twitter has brought to life. It has also managed to create one or two of its own.


Like the dotcom bubble before it, the rise of social media has proven that having reach and influence doesn’t always equal success. Twitter may seem too big to fail, but this is exactly what it wants you to believe.


When it comes to reach, Twitter has it. Facebook may rule the roost with 1.28bn users worldwide, but no one can compare to that, and there’s no point trying.


Here’s a better comparison: at its peak in 2008, MySpace was one of the world’s most visited sites. In June 2006 it even overtook Google in the US. But it still only had 75.9m users – less than a third of what Twitter has now.


Twitter’s influence is all around us. What was the hashtag before 2006? It was the plaything of software geeks, sometimes used by the rest of us to denote numbers.


But now it has become the four-lined flag of online groupthink, and was voted the word of the year in 2012 by The American Dialect Society.


The humble tweet has become the new way people receive news, and sent papers and TV stations scrambling. Twenty-four-hour news channels don’t break stories any more – they merely air ones already broken by Twitter.


Twitter has also allowed brands to achieve what was previously thought impossible – a direct line to customers.  With hashtags as their hook, it’s just a case of reeling them in.


But despite everything – its reach, its influence, it’s huge price tag – Twitter still hasn’t turned a single profit.


In fact, it has been operating at a loss the whole time. Here is the company’s revenue compared to its profits since 2010.



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As you can see, last year’s profits aren’t going to be retweeted by investors anytime soon. Despite bringing in £665m in revenue, Twitter still went £645m into the red.

The company’s share price also plummeted to a historic low last week, after a decline in the rate of user growth was reported.

In the panic that ensued, shares in Twitter fell by 24 per cent, and billions of dollars was wiped from its value.

And the concerns for investors don’t stop there. It is estimated that almost 1bn accounts are registered on the site, which means that 740m of Twitter’s accounts are mostly inactive.

The amount of time people spend on the site is also falling, with timeline views down nearly 7% in the last quarter.

And according to one study, the average account only has one follower. Even when you only account for active accounts, the figure is a lowly 61.

Who would have known? Because of its size, social media has become a mish-mash of myth and reality. It seems to dominate our lives, even when it’s losing more money than sense.

Forbes has predicted that Twitter will start to be profitable in 2015, but it will be fascinating to see how this happens – if it happens at all.

What other type of company would be valued at billions when it is operating at such a loss? Reach and influence seem to go a long way in the fantasy world of today’s markets.

But when advertising accounts for most of your revenue, they mean little. The real key to long-term success is engagement, and without it Twitter might just fall from its perch.

People are reading fewer print newspapers now than they were fourteen years ago

People are reading fewer print newspapers now than they were fourteen years ago.

We know, hold the presses right?

But we didn’t come here to tell you what you already knew.

We’ve put together a graph plotting the circulations of five daily broadsheet papers over the past fourteen years. The overall shapes might be familiar, but below and on the graph we’ve highlighted some surprising things you might not have been aware of.

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Here’s the most important thing: as we tell our clients, always check the bathwater for babies. Of the papers we looked at, only one – the Financial Times – remains in steep decline in its print circulation (this could be explained by the FT’s present digital push, and its wealthy, tablet-owning audience).

Of the rest, two have been near-level since 2012 (The Telegraph and The Times) and one is actually reaching more people than it was this time last year (The Guardian).

So think twice next time you’re chatting away at a dinner party, happily accepting “the death of print” as a given. The old days are long gone, but this is a medium which still has a role to play in any communications strategy.

Major news events are still a driver of sales.

In 2001, established, trusted news sources The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent all saw a spike in circulation. The public were rushing to newstands to find out what had happened in New York on September 11.

In subsequent years, the major events that drove sales were those which individual papers could lay claim to.

When a paper leads the agenda on a major event, it benefits from a circulation boost. This suggests that readers keep returning to the source of the story for the most pertinent and trusted updates. You’ll notice this in our data for The Telegraph in November ’09, following their breaking of the expenses scandal. You’ll also see it at The Guardian after their publication, with Wikileaks, of the Afghan war logs in July 2010, and their recent use of the Snowden files.

The Times also enjoyed a spike when it launched its “cycle safe” campaign in 2006.

This suggests that the public still recognises distinct brands within the print media. Even as online habits dilute readerships, people will return to the source of an original story.

We should point out that these stories don’t boost the brand in the long term: just look at The Telegraph, whose expenses scandal boost was followed by its most dramatic decline.

The benefits of switching to new formats are now, in all cases, negated.

The Times, The Guardian and The Independent all benefitted from launching smaller print formats during the last decade.

The circulations of all three have now dropped below where they were before switching to the new formats.

This shows that public resistance to print runs deeper than a feeling that it is inconvenient. It’s unlikely that minor improvements to a print format will ever reverse the general decline – reading habits have changed too much.

Digital success and print success are unrelated.

Of the papers we looked at, arguably The Telegraph, the Financial Times and The Guardian have been most ambitious in their digital strategies. The Guardian has long been lauded for embracing the internet early on, pioneering an online comment format now copied by its rivals, and leading the pack in data visualisation. Both The Telegraph and the Financial Times have drawn attention for shifting to “digital first” business models.

A look at our graph shows no relationship between the successes of these three papers. The Guardian has enjoyed some of the least dramatic losses of any paper we looked at, the Financial Times was strong for much of last decade but is now in a steep decline, and The Telegraph looks to be levelling out following a huge drop in circulation.

It’s difficult to say why this might be, but it’s likely because online and print readerships tend to be different. The average age of a reader of in Q1 2013, for example, was just over half that of the print editions’ readers.

Most UK broadsheet titles’ circulations are leveling out.

With the exception of the Financial Times, which competes in a slightly different market to our other examples, the decline of the papers we looked at appears to be slowing or stopping altogether.

It’s important not to be so forward thinking you forget what still works in the present. This is an important lesson to bear in mind when considering UK daily papers. A good story in The Times’s print edition is still spread across about 400,000 papers, and has been for two years. A story in today’s Guardian will actually reach more people than it would have this time last year.

We’ll be watching with interest to see if this is a plateau or a more long-running trend.

The Art of the Publicity (or a nasty case of ‘Hirstism’)

This week saw the birth of a great stuntster. Clayton Pettet, the student who exploded across the internet last October when he announced plans to lose his virginity for an artwork  has finally made good on his promise.

Well, sort of. According to the Telegraph  the actual event involved no hanky panky, little nudity and nothing more erotic than a bit of fiddling about with a banana. The media had been spoofed. Pettet said he had been playing on assumptions critics had made about the work. In so doing, he led 10,000 people to apply for tickets to the show.

As he dreams up his next ruse, Pettet could take some advice from a great media operator, and an old friend of mine, Joey Skaggs . Joey has had the media jumping through hoops since the 60’s, from persuading reporters to scream out their inner pain live on camera to persuading the music press he was selling rockstar sperm by the bottle. What Pettet is doing has a proud history – and the potential for huge success. I remember working with Damien Hirst and seeing from the off his instinct for a media frenzy.

The way Pettet made his point was a little heavy handed, perhaps – apparently part of the show included a video montage of talk show hosts discussing Pettet’s work – but I applaud his moxy. It’s no small thing to cut through the omnipresent popculture noise and grab the media in today’s multi-channel world. Pettet has proved what I’d half-convinced myself was impossible – the media are still shockable. The old-fashioned moral panics some of my heroes relied on are still achievable. Publicists across the land owe him a debt.

A Call for Calm

Whisper it. The real truth is, that the majority of the industry doesn’t give a damn about the text book-peddling, muttering commentariat.

Anyway, you’ll never remove splinters from my rear end. I’m not a fence sitter. Moreover, I don’t consider my contemporary offering as pure PR. Instead, let me praise someone working at the epicentre of a global news story. On Monday afternoon a superlative PR hoved into view, reminding the world what is great about British public relations. A precise man; direct, adroit, authoritative, elegant and effective. A safe pair of hands delivering leading communications in real time for his company.

Indulge my wish for a moment, whilst I contextualise Chris McLaughlin, the spokesman for the London-based satellite provider, Inmarsat.


David Blaine: A lesson in purpose and passion

It took the urban dictionary to sum up the true definition of passion. It says:

“Passion is when you put more energy into something than is required to do it. It is more than just enthusiasm or excitement, passion is ambition that is materialised into action to put as much heart, mind, body and soul into something as is possible.”


Passion was the theme of last week. I spent most of mine with David Blaine. There are many adjectives that sum up David and passion is certainly one of them. This is a man who is wholly dedicated to his craft. There have been many impostors along the way, and yet Blaine does not let any of them derail his vision. Ultimately he knows others will not venture beyond his extremes.

David Blaine was only four years old when a magician on the New York subway sparked his passion. His lifetime since has been spent honing his craft. That he is an innovator is undisputed. His magic operates on an uncommonly personal level. He took an age old skill and turned it into something unique. He started on the street which meant understanding enchantment and personalisation was vital above all. He leaves everyone in his wake in awe. Above all it is impossible not to be infected by his passion, the way he talks, his knowledge and unprecedented commitment.


Journalist bites PR. Never explain, never complain.

Last Wednesday, the cuddly, credit card provider Mastercard ran into an alleged ‘PR fail’ storm when their PR agency mishandled and misjudged a bevy of journalists they were inviting to the Brit awards. Scribblers claim that, in exchange for entry to the event, they were asked by email to guarantee coverage, and were requested to keep to social media guidelines including using brand hashtags. Why the inane babble was thought important, is another discussion.

The first thing to say is that this is but a irritating itch, not a full blown brand ebola. Journalists may have ‘taken to Twitter’ to gloat over the misstep, but I can’t see anyone getting fired over a few tantrums. House PR, who sent the offending emails, have only ‘become the story’ for a tiny circle of media old wives. The man and woman from Kettering hasn’t the faintest idea that any of this has happened. Mastercard’s logo still proudly enveloped the event like an amorphous boil.


Mark’s lively and informative talks, speeches and panel appearances offer provocative perspectives on the past, present and future of communications. Why not extend an invitation?

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In his talks he draws on the analytical, advisory and creative work of the company, which places it at the heart of debate and developments concerning consumers, communication and technology. But he also draws on his 30 years’ practical experience as a publicist. 30 years during which he has earned a reputation as one of the most free-thinking, innovative and challenging practitioners of the art of consumer communications.

Please e-mail to inquire about possible speaking opportunities.