Why are some tweets more popular than others?
When a Twitter staff member set out to answer that question 10 months ago, he thought the answer would emerge among posts from NBA players, politicians or actors. Instead, he found a mystery: a set of messages that were ricocheting around Twitter, being forwarded and responded to at a rate that was off the charts.
"They were punching way above their weight," said Robin Sloan, who discovered the anomaly but did not recognize the names behind the messages.
Joyce Meyer, Max Lucado and Andy Stanley were not well known inside Twitter's offices. But they had all built loyal ranks of followers well beyond their social networks -- they were evangelical Christian leaders whose inspirational messages of God's love perform about 30 times as well as Twitter messages from pop culture powerhouses such as Lady Gaga.
Fifteen percent of adult Internet users in the United States are on Twitter, and about half of those use the network every day, according to a report published this week by the Pew Research Center. But Twitter is always looking for ways to add new users. And so, with this new insight, the company sent a senior executive, Claire Diaz-Ortiz, on a mission: to bring more religious leaders into the Twitter fold.
"We had looked at different groups, like CEOs and high-level executives, thinking, 'oh, do we need to spend more time with them?' " she said. "And then this religion thing popped up."
Last month, Ms. Diaz-Ortiz -- who has an MBA from Oxford, and whose many years abroad include work at a Christian orphanage in Kenya -- moved from San Francisco to Atlanta to be closer to the evangelical leaders she would be calling on. With religious leaders, she said, "it's so much about being at the table and breaking bread with folks."
Now, she spends half of her time on the road, offering training, analytics and help to swat away impostor accounts, as well as encouraging leaders to be less promotional and more personal in their posts. Twitter has offered similar support to celebrities and athletes since the company's founding.
In early May, Ms. Diaz-Ortiz, 30, traveled to a megachurch in Carrollton, Texas, for the Catalyst conference, where she navigated around DJs remixing Adele and among booths for Chick-fil-A, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and the retro eyewear maker Warby Parker. She led a workshop session, gave interviews, posted conference highlights on Twitter, defended occasional oversharing and reflexively corrected the verbal fumblings of the uninitiated.
"I don't Twitter," one pastor confessed. "Tweet," she sighed, with her eyes closed, for what seemed the hundredth time.
Perhaps her most important work, however, was among the many pastors in attendance, some of whom, she said, have 3,000 or 4,000 followers at their church -- a built-in network of potential Twitter users who are already familiar with the power of short messages.
"Pastors tell me, 'Twitter is just made for the Bible,' " Ms. Diaz-Ortiz said.
It's close. On average, verses in the King James Version are about 100 characters long, leaving room to slip in a #bible hashtag and still come in under the 140-character limit.
And proverbs are powerful draws on Twitter. Consider this post in April from Bishop T. D. Jakes: "Your words will tell others what you think. Your actions will tell them what you believe."
His message was forwarded 2,490 times -- just shy of the 2,491 retweets that the pop singer Katy Perry generated the same month with this message to her fans: "Sometimes jet lag makes me feel like a cross eyed crack head #muststayawake."
Both messages performed remarkably well. But there was a key difference: Bishop Jakes has 450,000 followers, while Perry has 20 million.
Voices less famous than Bishop Jakes also benefit from this "engagement" effect, suggesting that it is driven less by fame than by the inspirational content of the messages.
Ann Voskamp, a mother of six who lives on a farm in Ontario, is one of those voices. Her book "One Thousand Gifts," about moments of everyday grace, started a Twitter conversation still going 18 months after its publication.
Ms. Voskamp says the network is successful as a source of spiritual support because it is tailor-made for today's culture. "In a fast world, they get what they need from that one little tweet," she said.
The advice that Ms. Diaz-Ortiz offers is simple. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," she said, pausing to add, "on Twitter."