Contrary to popular perception, Twitter has always been more of a niche social network in most countries around the world. In our first wave of research in July 2009, we estimated that Twitter had just 35.47 million monthly active users across the markets covered at the time. Twitter, however, is shaking off that niche status with impressive style, and as we being 2013, it is the fastest growing social platform on the planet.

GWI.8, the Q4 2012 dataset from GlobalWebIndex, shows that the number of active Twitter users grew 40% from Q2 2012 to Q4 2012. This is equal to 288 million monthly active users (claimed to have used or contribute to Twitter in the past month) across the 31 markets currently researched by GWI (representing nearly 90% of the global internet population aged 16 to 65). That marks a whopping growth rate in active users of 714% since July 2009.

An incredible 21% of the global internet population now use Twitter actively on a monthly basis.

If we compare this to the number of accounts, we see that 36% of the global internet population have an account, equal to 485 million 16 to 65 years olds by GWI estimates. If we compare this to Q2 2012, we saw global Twitter account penetration at 32%, or 408 million, meaning growth in accounts was slower than that of active users in the period. Crucially for Twitter and its advertisers, this shows that Twitter is doing a great job in driving active engagement with 59% of account holders now active on a monthly basis, up from 50% in Q2 2012.


As the chart below shows, the way people are using Twitter is changing in two respects. Firstly, it is becoming a passive source of discovery for users and secondly, users are using more as a tool or service rather than a pure social service. Amazingly, only 51% of active users claim to have posted a tweet in the past month. This means that half the active user base is just reading, reacting or using Twitter as a source of discovery. The caricature of the average Twitter user banally talking about what they had for breakfast is dying.

Most interestingly, this is a trend that is accelerating. The chart below shows the percentage change in active (last month) behaviours for Twitter users via PC as well as those using via mobile. The lowest ranking growth activity for both PC and mobile is “Comment about my daily activities” or “Comment on a friends post”. The great news for brands is that usage is becoming more commercial, with “Posting comments about brands”, “Using branded apps (with Twitter)”, “Asking friends about products” growing significantly. The other major growth areas are “Organising an event”, “Watching full-length TV or Films” (we can assume the majority is links or discovery of TV/Film that is viewed elsewhere) and “Buying a product or service” (again links or discovery – meaning Twitter is not the point of sale but the source of discovery)

All of these changes in usage underline the changing nature of Twitter (and the broader social media landscape) from a peer-to-peer or personal publishing platform, to the social infrastructure that links our internet experience across multiple devices and allows us to use the internet more efficiently. It’s quite possible that the majority of Twitter users in future will have very little or no interaction with the Twitter web page, and only use it through third party apps, aggregation services, operating system integration or via connected devices such as your TV. The deep integration of Twitter into the workings of the internet is good news for Twitter, but comes with the challenge of creating a viable longer term business model as advertising becomes more of a challenge. Twitter has taken this challenge on well, and things like promoted tweet or hashtag campaigns are things that will transcend the Twitter home page, allowing these paid services to be effective regardless of how people use Twitter.


As with Facebook, recent years have seen stagnation in the growth of Twitter usage in the US, with growth centred on the emerging internet markets such as Brazil, Indonesia or India.

However, 2012 has flipped this trend on its head and seen the US top the growth of active usage behind Hong Kong, growing a staggering 94% to 33.8 million active users and 59 million account holders in Q4 2012. Our analysts have identified three key reasons behind this return to growth:

    1. Mobile Devices: The US for many years was a mobile internet laggard, but in 2012 active mobile internet usage expanded from 37% to 43% of US internet users and tablet from 8% to 18%. Also as 31% of US mobile users are now on an iOS device, deep Twitter integration into iOS was a game changer (as reflected in the mobile growth above).
    2. Older Demographics: : Over-55s are the fastest growing demographic on Twitter! Active usage grew 116% between Q2 and Q4 2012 while active usage among 45-54s increased 81% in the same period. Twitter proved to be the fastest growing social platform in the latter demographic group. In an ageing population, this represents tens of millions of well-healed users on Twitter.
    3. Mass Media Integration: TV, films, radio, sports and advertising provided Twitter with an incredible level of exposure, and this is already translating into more users. This integration has provided people with reasons to use Twitter that go well beyond social.

What Does This Mean for Brands?

Using Twitter is becoming more relevant than ever, but we need to be aware of how any given audience engages with Twitter. Difference in usage patterns will reflect the local market norms, generational gaps, and privacy concerns. For example, active Twitter usage ranges from 6% of the internet universe in Germany to 51% in Saudi Arabia. That’s not to say that it is not relevant in Germany but that it impacts the nature of the target audience who are active and the type of brands for which it would be relevant. All of this, of course, is dependent on running detailed analysis of your target audience and the local market context.

We also need to consider the changing nature of usage. The growing interaction with brands makes customer service and staff interaction a must if Twitter is employed as a communication channel. Also, the growing usage of Twitter as a discovery tool means that content is absolutely critical for brands. Overall, content is the ever growing mega opportunity of the new social landscape.

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