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by Dan Woychick
In an annual ritual that portends the coming spring, Major League pitchers and catchers reported to sunny baseball diamonds all across Florida and Arizona last week. Somewhere, no doubt, people tweeted about it.
But, baseball isn’t the sport I’ve been thinking about recently. No, I’ve been thinking about golf, and how many parallels it seems to have with Twitter – the social network that has captivated the news media, celebrities, and marketing professionals everywhere. For example:
- Twitter and golf both support a flourishing industry of experts who will gladly take your money in exchange for promises to improve your game.
- Both are governed by widely accepted rules of etiquette.
- Fewer shots (and characters) is considered better than more.
- Golf is the leisure activity most closely associated with corporate success in America. Twitter is considered, by some, vitally important to an organization’s marketing success.
There are other similarities, however, that are cause for deeper analysis.
You’re probably not very good
Most people prefer to spend time doing things they’re good at. Curiously, golf and Twitter are two pastimes in which lack of aptitude does not appear to be a deterrent to participation.
As in most things with a bell curve, the distribution of talent gets pretty thin over on the right edge of the graph. However, a lot of activity, in both golf and Twitter, is generated by this smaller group of people. According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, 10% of users account for 90% of all Twitter activity. Similarly, fewer than 10% of Americans play golf and, of those, only a small percentage would be considered avid golfers – those playing 25 rounds or more per year.
So why do the rest of us continue to flail about?
Even though I can’t throw a football like Peyton Manning, dunk a basketball, or hit a 95 mile-per-hour fastball, every once in a while I can swing a club and strike the golf ball with as much purity and precision as any professional golfer. I’m convinced it’s those moments that keep hackers like me coming back for more.
On Twitter, in real time, we can follow the thoughts and actions of those we admire in a way that feels more personal and connected than other forms of media – and some people may even be interested in following what we have to say.
The intoxicating possibility of regularly hitting a golf ball well, or having legions of followers, seems tantalizingly within reach. Except that it’s really not – at least not for most of us.
It’s much easier to hit your target if you know what it is. This holds true whether you’re swinging a golf club or crafting 140-character messages.
Nearly every golfer on a practice range is swinging a driver – a club that’s used relatively rarely during an actual round – to hit the ball as far as they can. Approximately two-thirds of all shots in an average round occur within 100 yards of the hole. Yet, it’s the rare player that allots practice time according to the frequency of the shot.
Many Twitter users take a similarly haphazard approach to the social network, practicing without a clear understanding of what they hope to accomplish. Is it better used as a broadcasting platform or for instant messaging with friends and colleagues? Is it a link sharing service or a marketing tool? It could be any or all of those things, but few users persist in working with a specific audience in mind, or defining what success looks like and a strategy for achieving it.
Return on investment
Mark Twain is famously attributed with the assessment that golf is “a good walk spoiled.” When it comes to Twitter, nonprofit marketers’ expectations of the social network as an effective media channel can be spoiled by reality.
One of the drawbacks of playing golf is that it costs both a lot of time and money. As people have become gradually busier and the economy has struggled, golf’s popularity has waned over the last ten years.
Twitter, in contrast, may suffer from nearly the opposite problem – with high demand but unlimited supply the cost of participation is negligible, and “playing” can be done in one’s spare time. Because it easily fills the little “throwaway” gaps in an ordinary work day, Twitter may not be as highly valued as an activity that requires a stronger commitment.
In either case, when it comes to marketing, the question that must be answered is not: Do I enjoy this activity? But rather: Is this the best use of my time?
The workplace is rife with examples of busy marketing professionals who have difficulty prioritizing the tasks on their to do list – who regularly confuse “nice to know” with “need to know” – and consequently end up either working harder than necessary or distracting themselves with more stimulating, but less vital, pursuits.
People can rationalize all day long about how they choose to spend their time, and point to exceptions that prove the rule, but make no mistake – for the vast majority of people – Twitter, like golf, is an enjoyable diversion, not an integral part of your marketing success.