UPDATE: I've updated the map data to include NT data, thanks to the help of @Maxious, who found an ABS dataset which includes them.
Local government use of Twitter in Australia by tweets - zoom for detail
There was a direct correlation between population density and the propensity of councils to tweet. This was intriguing, but not surprising.
While Twitter is most useful as a real-time news and interaction service, and therefore has enormous value in sharing information across geographically large regional councils, a combination of limited internet infrastructure and experience using services like Twitter tends to create a digital divide between rural and metro councils. As a result, many of the local governments that could most benefit from Twitter's capabilities are the least likely to use it.
One of the most critical factors on Twitter is the number of followers an account has. This is because the more followers, the greater the impact of your tweets. This becomes particularly important when distributing information on disasters, consultations or even for customer service purposes, where more people can view and act on answers to questions.
In analysing how local governments have done in building their Twitter followings, the results were quite dim. Only the six largest council accounts, all from major city councils, had more than 7,000 followers, while the average number of followers for all local government accounts was only 1,043 - compared to 2,556 for Federal and 2,459 for state and territory government Twitter accounts.
The average number of followers by state varied quite significantly, with Queensland councils tending to have the most followers (2,073 on average), followed by Victoria (a long way back at 1,196) and NSW (on 873) . Tasmania and the Northern Territory did worst, with councils in those jurisdictions having an average of 448 and 239 followers respectively.
The data also suggested only a weak correlation between how active a council was on Twitter and the number of followers they had. As pictured in the chart below, the councils that tweet most frequently are not necessarily those with the most followers and there was only a slight correlation for councils with a higher than average (1,000) followers.
Note I used a logarithmic scale for Followers in all of the following charts to emphasise the spread.
Looking at account age, there was some indication that the longer a council had operated its Twitter account, the more likely it was to have accumulated more followers, however the chart for this (below) didn't really strike me as that impressive. Many older accounts still languished below average (1,000 followers) and local councils who had more than the average number of followers were only marginally older than the average account.
A slightly stronger correlation was with the number of accounts a local council followed. Councils with more than 1,000 (average) followers were significantly more likely to follow more accounts, however it was unclear if this was a cause of their level of followers or the effect of them following people back.
To provide a comparison on this last chart, below I've looked at Twitter accounts operated by state and Commonwealth agencies on the same axes. In this case it looks as though councils have done better than other levels of government in achieving a good divident of followers by following people.
So to sum up, it looks as though neither the length of time a council operates an account, the level of active tweeting or the number of people followed adequately, or together come close to explaining why some local councils do better at gaining Twitter followers than other.
So let's consider the two elephants in the room - council resident population and connectivity. Councils with small population bases will struggle to build their numbers significantly unless their content is either tourism-based or extremely entertaining. Equally councils with poor internet infrastructure are likely to have fewer people using social media and hence less Twitter users to follow the council.
Unfortunately I don't have detailed information on the population in every council region (though I am putting this together at the moment), nor do I have a map of internet connectivity speeds across Australia.
However I have reviewed a sample of councils in WA, NSW and Victoria, and from my understanding of this data (not yet sufficiently processed for publishing) population has a significant impact on Twitter follower numbers for councils and connectivity probably does as well.
So what should councils do to increase their follower count and improve the effectiveness of their Twitter engagement?
The first and most basic steps are to ensure the council has the right Twitter accounts in place and there's staff able to, and responsible for, managing them. They should also follow an active (and entertaining) tweeting program and follow people, to build awareness - these steps do appear to increase following, at least modestly.
Alongside these steps, local governments should take actions to inform their residents about their Twitter account and its benefits. This can be done via their other material (bills, pamphlets, websites, business cards, etc), and also provide classes and training on how to use the service - both for residents and their own staff.
Finally, while councils are unable to change their population numbers significantly in a short time, they are often able to take steps to improve internet connectivity and usage in their region. This can involve lobbying the NBN to provide or accelerate services, or installing their own networks to provide a solution where commercial providers cannot financially justify wiring a town.
This last approach has been taken in the US and, to a lessor extent in the UK, and I am aware of a few old examples in Australia. I think this is still a valid approach in Australia, particularly for councils receiving limited NBN wiring, and one that needs to be considered for the economic as well as the communications benefits.
Notes and caveats
All Twitter usage data was current at 25 January 2013.
The map has been updated to use ABS derived local government boundaries.
I may not be monitoring all government accounts in Australia. New ones are created regularly and while I update my list on a regular basis it is unlikely to include all goverment accounts at all times. However I am confident it contains the vast majority of accounts and is statistically accurate.