Back in November 2010 we used the Glass Pockets database to identify 38 of the top 100 Foundations (by endowment site) using Twitter. By “using Twitter” we mean Foundations with official Twitter accounts. This does not include Foundation staff using Twitter, and we did not look at multiple Twitter accounts per Foundation, only the primary official Twitter account for each of the 38 Foundations.
We looked at some basic metrics for how these Foundations were using Twitter, such as the follower/following ratio, tweeting frequency, age of account, etc... There is tremendous variability in the data, which is not surprising. The numbers suggest that some Foundations have done little more than sign up for a Twitter account while others are making regular use of the service.
The oldest account in the data set was started in December of 2007 and belongs to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates Foundation is the largest Foundation in the set (by assets), and has the most followers, over 400,000, and is "listed" nearly 7,000 times. The newest account is that of the Oregon Community Foundation, which joined Twitter in May of 2010 and has only 150 followers.
The table below shows some aggregate statistics about the number of followers these Foundations have, and the number of accounts they are following in return. It would almost make more sense to remove the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation from the dataset because they are such an outler. They have nearly 40 times the number of followers as the next Foundation, the Open Society Institute with 11,643.
This next table shows the ratio of followers to following. There are a number of Foundations that are not following anyone, and thus do not have a ratio. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the high water mark with nearly 4,500 followers for every account they follow, but the median here is a much more usefull number, half of the accounts we looked at had a follower/following ratio of less than 5.5. When the data is considered in detail, it appears that once a Foundation crosses over the 1,000 followers threshold, their followers/following ratio begins to increase (i.e. they follow fewer accounts for each that follows them).
I think that these ratio numbers suggest that Foundations have not mastered the tools available to manage the Tweet Stream of the accounts they follow, and make sense of them. Twitter Lists, for starters, but free and enterprise level tools as well could allow Foundations (and other organizations) to exhibit reciprocity in follows (e.g. following those that follow them) while still making sense of, and meaningfully engaging with Twitter.
The Followcost for most Foundations is very low. There are no Scobles in the sampling we looked it. The maximum daily number of tweets was less than 6, and half of the accounts we looked at tweet fewer than two times each day.
There are a few archetypes for Twitter users: broadcasters and conversationalists come to mind. Broadcasters do not retweet other users much, and mention other users infrequently. On the other hand, conversational Twitter users mention and retweet liberally. Half of the Foundations we looked at reply to or mention other users in less than scantly more than 3% of their tweets, and retweets make up lass than a fifth of all their tweets.
@Replies as % of total
Retweets as % of total
Looking at some specific accounts, it became clear that retweeting other accounts from the same Foundation inflated the numbers for some of the larger organizations. This behavior is less conversational, and more broadcast-like, where one account is aggregating and republishing tweets from others within the organization.
One of the most shocking things that I found during this research is that of all of the interfaces one can use to post to Twitter, it appears that most Foundations are mostly using Twitter's own web interface, rather than more powerful desktop tools or web services like Tweetdeck, HootSuite, and CoTweet. We looked at the two most frequently used interfaces for each account, and the number one interface for 20 of the accounts was the Web and it was the number 2 interface for 9 of the accounts. TweetDeck was next, followed by HootSuite. Only 1 account was using CoTweet.
Foundations are still learning how to use Twitter. We all are, really. But it is clear that many of the Foundations we looked at are using Twitter as another broadcast channel to share information with their followers, while avoiding true public conversation via this new platform.
Foundations need develop better "listening strategies" and learn to use the powerful tools (free and paid) that can help an organization manage and make sense of their Twitter experience. This starts with using services like CoTweet and tools like TweetDeck to read, filter, and post Tweets, but extends to using enterprise services like Radian6 and Trackur to find conversations taking place about their issue areas.
These conclusions, and our breif look into this data does not begin to address issues around the Return On Investment associated with using Twitter. It is very likely that spending more time, and money, on Twitter is not for every Foundation, but there are tremendous opportunities to reach out to the public and engage in conversations with other Twitter users about issues that are important to a Foundation, as well as to promote and support the work of grantees and potentially find new grantees or get found by them.