Innovators anxious to see their software products go viral might want to take a close look at how Twitter—which is said to have more than 300 million users worldwide—accomplished that feat.
That's exactly what two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers did, studying growth data from the 408 U.S. cities with the highest number of Twitter users, to determine how information spreads and technology is adopted.
"People had studied the diffusion of innovations on big, expensive, high-risk products previously," says Marta González, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and engineering systems at MIT. "But adoption of no-risk, free, or low-cost products like Twitter or other social media—which are only useful if other people join you—is a brand-new paradigm."
González and co-author Jameson Toole, an MIT graduate student, wanted to determine whether two factors—geography and the mass media—played a role in the spreading process.
A third co-author, Meeyoung Cha, an assistant professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology who studies complex networking systems, had the foresight to start downloading Twitter-published user data in mid-2006, when the site had only a few hundred users.
What the MIT researchers determined—as detailed in their paper, "Modeling the Adoption of Innovations in the Presence of Geographic and Media Influences"—was that geography played an important part in product adoption. A video shows how—from Twitter's launch in late March 2006 through early August 2009—nearly 3.5 million people signed up for Twitter, mainly in cities with high concentrations of young, tech-savvy early adopters like San Francisco and Boston.
"Future developers will want to pay attention to and consider launching their apps in those cities where early adopters live," says González. "They are the places that are more likely to accelerate the app's spread."
A key component to having a product go viral is whether usage of that product has reached a tipping point of 13.5% of the population, they say.
"For example, if you are considering whether to buy a fax machine," explains Toole, "but you are the only person you know with a fax machine, that technology won't be very useful to you. But if everyone you know has a fax machine, suddenly owning one becomes very important." Similarly, he says, when the number of Twitter users crossed a certain threshold, signing up for the service became more attractive.
What surprised the two researchers was the huge influence the media had on Twitter's adoption. They estimate the mass media was responsible for increasing Twitter's user base two- to fourfold.
"The media was silent on Twitter until around the time Twitter reached this critical 13.5% threshold of users," says Toole. "Previously, the software relied on word of mouth alone to fuel its spread. Then suddenly the press became interested in reporting on it—and then a strong feedback loop kicked in. The reporting drove more people to sign up … which created a new story for the media to write about how many people were signing up. Innovators might want to leverage that feedback loop to make their marketing efforts that much more efficient."
The biggest spike in Twitter growth resulted not from any expensive advertising campaign but from the endorsement of a few hyper-influential individuals, adds Toole.
"When actor Ashton Kutcher announced he wanted to be the first person with 1 million friends on Twitter and then when Oprah Winfrey signed up for Twitter on her TV show and encouraged others to do so, we saw the largest increase in the number of Twitter users over the entire two-and-a-half year period we studied."
While marketers may want to follow the same methods Twitter rode to fame, "there is no guarantee that their apps will have the same success, of course," says González.
"The actual adoption rate still depends a great deal on the quality and attractiveness of your product."
Paul Hyman was editor-in-chief of several hi-tech publications at CMP Media (now United Business Media), including Electronic Buyers' News.
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