Steve Howell, Freshwater’s chief executive, writes a monthly column -Business Talk - for the Western Mail newspaper. The following article appeared on Monday 3rd September 2012. The views expressed are Steve’s and not necessarily those of the company.

Steve Howell writes…

Whatever happens in the imminent cabinet re-shuffle, Grant Shapps will be happy his name has been hitting the headlines for reasons other than being over-eager to inflate his Twitter following.

The housing minister was being touted over the weekend as the favourite to replace Baroness Warsi as Conservative Party chairman.

That may be a political hot seat with a short life expectancy, but it is much better subject matter than being accused – as he was recently – of using dodgy software to attract followers.

Lord Prescott, who has taken his punchy style from the front benches into cyberspace, stirred it up by asking if anyone else had been followed and unfollowed by the Welwyn Hatfield MP.

And so many had that #shappsfollowedme started trending on Twitter, with some tweets claiming he was using ‘autobots’  - programmed key words – to follow people in the hope they would follow him back.  It certainly didn’t look good for a rising political star to appear so desperate to boost his following.

But it could have been worse. Some celebrities and politicians have been accused of buying completely fake followers through websites such as for as little as £10 for 500.

For those of us who enjoy a tweet or two, it’s sad to see the medium being so brazenly degraded.

And it does beg questions about whether or not Twitter and fellow social media giant Facebook are so driven by numbers – both in their culture and commercially – that they could devalue the product itself.

Facebook’s share price hit new lows on Friday – they are now worth less than half the $38 price they were sold for in May. The fall is in part due to fears early investors will dump shares on the market when lock-up agreements expire. But it is also because some analysts doubt the company can hit its revenue targets.

Facebook and Twitter face a similar problem of a mismatch between the expectations of their users and the need to drive revenue through advertising. If users are alienated by intrusive advertising, numbers will drop and advertisers will start to put their money elsewhere.

It’s too early to spot a trend here, and there is no doubt the two giants have a powerful market position, but I do wonder if we will see increasing diversity in the social media scene.

There is already evidence of this in the success of online networking sites defined by common interests and identities.

Mumsnet is a thriving community of 1.3 million mothers. Travellerspoint helps 512,000 members plan journeys and share recommendations. And Vampire Freaks is the ‘go to’ site for nearly 2 million people who like that sort of thing.

Then there’s Cross.TV for Christians, for environmentalists and MeetTheBoss if like rubbing shoulders with corporate titans.

These sites are based on a common interest, but others are defined by national identity. Hungary (iWiW), Poland (Nasza-Klasa), Holland (Hyves) and Norway (Biip) are among the countries with successful home language sites.

It is noticeable the advertising on these niche sites reflects their interest or identity. Indeed, in some cases, it is actually part of the offer: people use the site to find out about relevant products or services.

This concept of an online community, bonded by identity or interest, is also the premise on which was launched a few weeks ago.

With South Wales Chamber of Commerce and Welsh Whisky support, and another major partner to be announced shortly, WWW is an online platform for Welsh businesses to showcase their products and to network internationally.

The idea is to connect ambitious Welsh companies with the vast but scattered community of people with an affinity for Wales – whether through family, ancestry, education or profession – or with a commercial reason to want to do business with Wales.

The site has already attracted members from more than 20 countries, some of them ex-pats, others simply seeing an opportunity to offer their services in, for example, Brazil, India or the USA.

It is not a numbers game, and it’s early days, but it could help make a difference to the growth and jobs statistics.


Steve Howell