There’s a whole Internet outside of Twitter, so don’t forget it

Pew released a new study on Twitter demographics today that found only 8 percent of Americans on the web use Twitter. Of that 8 percent, only 2 percent use Twitter on a typical day. Keep in mind that about 74 percent of American adults are internet users, meaning that the Twitter users make up about 6 percent of the entire adult population.

This news shouldn’t be surprising, but maybe it is to those who live in the Twitter echo chamber.

When all of your friends, your coworkers, your spouse and the media you consume are on Twitter, it may seem logical to believe a great deal of America is as well. This is a dangerous assumption for journalists and media organizations to make – and I know I’ve been guilty of it from time to time.

While I still think it is very important for journalists to use Twitter, the following facts must be emblazoned on the brains of media Twitterati:

  • Twitter represents a very small group of people in your area.
  • Being popular on Twitter doesn’t necessarily make one popular or important in real life.
  • Re-tweets, replies and Twitter referrals do not adequately represent the larger interest in or importance of your work as a journalist.
  • Most people that use Twitter don’t use it to get news.

Now, the study. The Pew study did find some interesting demographic tidbits that should be making us rethink how we approach the tool.

  • There are more American women using Twitter as opposed to men (10% to 7%)
  • Internet users ages 18-29 are significantly more likely to use Twitter than older adults.
  • African-Americans and Latinos web users are more than twice as likely to use Twitter as are their white counterparts.
  • Urban residents are roughly twice as likely to use Twitter as rural dwellers.

So what does all of this mean?

First of all, all of these stats boil down to one unavoidable fact: Twitter (and social media in general) can’t be your only tool for reaching out. It’s excellent for engaging part of your audience, note taking, networking and consuming media – but it isn’t going to reach a lot of your online audience.

So if you’re using Twitter as your primary channel of crowdsourcing or opinion-taking, you are not getting a very large or diverse group of people involved in your project. Make sure you diversify your crowdsourcing methods if you want to reach more than the usual suspects. Try networking with other websites and blogs to see if they can help recruit users or gather responses; offer logical gateways on your own site into crowdsourcing projects (see ProPublica’s in-story crowdsourcing promos); consider buying advertising online or on Facebook; get organizations with interest in your project to reach out to their members. And, lastly, meet people (you know, IN PERSON).

These stats also mean that if you’re using Twitter as your primary means of marketing yourself or your company, you are not reaching the web audience as a whole. At TBD, for instance, our primary means of marketing has been on Twitter so far (with more plans to come). This means a lot of DC people on Twitter know of our site…but a lot of people who aren’t on Twitter do not. This is likely a problem for lots of small businesses, blogs and organizations that have followed the advice of over-zealous marketers and put too much stock in social media.

The study also shows us that Twitter is a very good way to engage with one of the most elusive news audiences on the web: Young minorities.

Even aside from these statistics, look at the anecdotal evidence by checking out Twitter trending topics in urban areas, especially after 9 pm (when the professional users and PR types get offline). Even outside the alleged “blacktags” (a misnomer, but that’s best said elsewhere), the level of participation from non-white users and non-English speakers in the U.S. on Twitter is huge and has been for a long time.

How do you tap into this audience? Noting trending topics in your community is a start. See what people are talking about, what’s going viral outside your social sphere. Is there a hole in your coverage in these areas of interest? Fix it. Try sending tweets late in the evening, when a whole other “nightside” conversation really seems to ramp up (keep in mind, a lot of people of all ages and races tend to be online late). And again, meet people in real life. It’s crucial.

The fact is, we’ll always be figuring out what kinds of tools, methods and networks are best for reaching people online and off. The Pew study is, of course, one of many on one of the many tools in our arsenals. Don’t forget about the rest.