Explaining No10's startling Twitter success

Downing Street’s remarkable Twitter popularity reaches new heights today, with the number of followers passing the 200,000 mark. But as some of you may know, an explanation has finally emerged courtesy of Matt Wardman – which should hopefully calm some of the general excitement I’m seeing around Whitehall.
At some point in January, so it turns out, Twitter began suggesting possible friends to new registrants… and Downing Street was one of the lucky few who made the cut. It’s my understanding that they were chosen ‘on merit’, as an example of a famous name making interesting use of the service; they didn’t ask for this prestigious position, and I don’t even think they were notified about it.

No10 at Twitter signup
Pic from mattwardman.com

So suddenly, unexpectedly, their follower count began surging upwards. But of course, with so many ‘industry people’ already being Twitter users, none of us spotted this new matchmaking stage in the sign-up process. So perhaps it’s not the new dawn of popular political engagement that it might have seemed.
Now, I still see it as an unquestionably good thing. It doesn’t really matter how people found out about the account. And it doesn’t really matter if it’s a ‘tick this box’ or ‘untick this box’ scenario. (Speaking of which, I genuinely don’t know which it is… can someone enlighten me?) People are still opting into – or at least, not opting out of – a government ‘mailing list’. Even if they’re not really listening, they’re certainly hearing… and that’s more than a good start.
I don’t even think it matters if a large proportion are outside the UK (although again, I don’t know if the list of suggestions is geo-targeted). The messages may not be directly relevant to a foreign audience, but they certainly present the UK government as forward-thinking in the online space. The FCO would call that ‘public diplomacy’.
What Matt’s revelation does show is that @downingstreet is a fortunate exception. It demonstrates an interest, certainly, but a passive interest, rather than anything proactive. Other government initiatives simply will not receive Twitter’s special blessing as No10 did; and hence, will not receive anything like the same level of interest. Sorry to disappoint, guys.
That isn’t to do down the role that Twitter can play in (much as I hate the term) stakeholder engagement. You’ll just have to work at it, like any other Twitterer, to build your sphere of influence. There may only be a couple of hundred people interested in tweets on a given project; but if it’s the right couple of hundred people, the number doesn’t matter. Think quality, not quantity.
But it does suggest one possible use for the @downingstreet account: introducing people to other HMG activity on Twitter – and elsewhere online. It would be very interesting to see how much traffic a tweeted link could generate, for example. Time for a bit of bit.ly, gang?

6 thoughts on “Explaining No10's startling Twitter success”

  1. There was some suggestion on twitter a few weeks back of leveraging @downingstreet’s popularity for other HMG initiatives and channels (a kind of one-day Government tweet-up), but nothing came of it. Would be good if the No10 Strategic Comms Unit could coordinate some activities to all our digital benefits… We could benefit from some seeding and feeding.

  2. @downingstreet’s success shouldn’t simply be measured by the number of followers it accumulates. It starts with very high visibility, the potential interested audience is 60m, and also inertia rules when it comes to unfollowing Twitterfeeds that don’t come up to expectation.
    I followed hoping it would give some inside perspective or add personality to day-to-day life inside No.10. It hasn’t. It seems to be just a Court Circular for the PM’s diary. ‘Good to have started but could do an awful lot better’, would be my school report on it.

  3. I’m told it is pre-ticked when you get to the page, so you have to actively opt out. Still don’t think that’s a problem, though.

  4. What a bull$!^* way of gaining followers!! These kind of followers mean nothing. Do Number10 measure the success of their tweets? I hope it was not an idea from some ‘CarpetBagger’ – lets see some facts and figure to validate its usefulness.

  5. What do ‘these kind of followers mean’, Dave? Maybe you haven’t seen my subsequent piece about the online entrepreneur who wants to pay Twitter $250,000 over two years for such prominence.

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