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updated 12/4/2009 7:21:46 AM ET 2009-12-04T12:21:46

If there was going to be a Facebook 50 , there had to be a Twitter 12.

After all, 2009 has been Twitter’s year. Traffic has quadrupled, investors have recommitted, the media has fawned. Even if Twitter isn’t the future of social media, it’s certainly the shiniest, newest thing flitting in front of us. And businesses love shiny new things.

Thus, this year has also seen corporate America come into its own on Twitter. Some use it for customer service, others for exclusive coupons, and still others to pump out RSS feeds of in-house events. In Twitter, PR departments have found a two-way loudspeaker: an unfiltered way to reach a company’s fans and a Big Brother opportunity to keep tabs on its detractors. As an entire social media platform devoted to self-marketing, it’s amazing Twitter isn’t funded by the Chamber of Commerce.

But just because a ton of businesses are using Twitter doesn’t mean they’re using it well.

The Big Money set out to figure out which companies sit on top of the Twitter heap. The overarching question: Which companies get the most out of Twitter?

To figure out the answer, we took a mix of the salient metrics: number of followers, growth over the last two months, number of tweets, and whether the account is doing anything besides providing a transplanted RSS feed. We only included companies with follower counts higher than a million. (There were other stipulations—for instance, the feed needed to represent the company, not the CEO of the company, and the business couldn’t be a derivative of Twitter.) The assumption was that a company with 100,000 followers couldn’t be getting more out of Twitter than the one with a million. That left us with 32 companies. With the help of Twitterholic, a site that tracks Twitter accounts’ metrics, we aggregated the sites’ stats and created a weighted rubric by which to judge.

After much number crunching we ranked our top 12.

The list is far different from TBM’s Facebook 50, with only two entrants making both lists (the NBA and CNN).

It’s a telling split, and evidence that Facebook and Twitter serve different purposes for different customers, whether they be companies or consumers.

Read below for some trends we noticed while putting together the Twitter 12. Or click here to read through the entire Twitter 12.

The disproportional influence of the “Suggested User” List
In March, Twitter announced it was going to start suggesting accounts for new Twitterers to follow. “When you don't follow any other accounts on Twitter the product is not as relevant as it could be,” cofounder Biz Stone wrote on Twitter’s blog.

The list has over 400 accounts on it, and all but one of the corporate accounts that cleared the million-follower threshold were on the list. (CNN Breaking News is the only exception.) Twitter has given a handout to some but not all, creating a schism in their community of users. Why does @jetblue get recommended and @comcastcares doesn’t? They’re both customer service accounts for a huge national company. And yet @jetblue has 1.4 million followers and @comcastcares only has 32,000. Because of the Suggested User List, @comcastcares never stood a chance at making the Twitter 12. Twitter declined to comment on whether there was a methodology to the list, but did say that one of its priorities moving forward is finding a better way of recommending users.

Customer service happens on Twitter in a way it doesn’t on Facebook
Many companies run their feeds like an emergency hotline. Tweets like this one on one of Dell’s feeds are common: “@kristiewells Hi Kristie. Anything I can help with?” This is the kind of question that a customer service rep would have asked by phone. But the tweets are far more powerful. In @kristiewells’ case, Dell is reaching out to her, implying that her concerns are important. The normal customer service dialogue has been changed; it’s now asynchronous and public. Dell could’ve ignored @kristiewells, but it chose not to. And it chose to tell the whole world that it was trying to help.

This dynamic doesn’t happen on Facebook. There, a company’s fan pages are more of a one-way affair. The company remains the monolith that creates things for others to consume. There is no expectation it will write on your wall if you write on its. Even the vocabulary used—“fan”—implies a one-way relationship, where you’re endorsing their product without any favor in return.

Media companies dominate; food companies wither
The make-ups of Facebook 50 and Twitter 12 are vastly different. While Facebook 50 is packed with food companies, Twitter 12 is stuffed with media outlets. Half of the Twitter 12’s honorees are media-oriented, and plenty of other Web properties were on the bubble. Twitter is ideal for media companies, which can use the service as a glorified RSS feed, pointing followers back to articles on the outlet’s Web site. Accompanying those articles, of course, is advertising. Sweet, energizing, revenue-soaked advertising.

Our No. 1 account belongs to the New York Times. It’s a no-frills RSS feed, but its follower count (north of 2 million) and its Twitter 12-best update count (nearly 40 per day) put it at the top of our list. It’s of interest, though, that its Twitter 12 media colleagues aren’t its competitors. USA Today, Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times all weren’t even in contention. The Onion was the only newspaper that came close to the NYT. A sign of the Times’ cachet with the digicrowd?

Food companies, meanwhile, aren’t absent on Twitter. (Pizza Hut, remember, even hired a twintern). It’s just that none of them made it onto Twitter’s hallowed Suggested User List. That meant they didn’t have the raw numbers to get onto our Twitter 12.

Start-ups are on an even playing field
The big multinationals were far outnumbered by small Web-only operations in our Twitter 12 pool. Etsy, the online crafts retailer, made the list, and someecards.com almost did. BNO News, an international news service, has more sway on Twitter than anywhere else. (Their Web site doesn’t provide anything the Twitter feed can’t.)

(Msnbc.com runs the BNO's @breakingnews Twitter feed.)

Pitchfork, TechCrunch, and Digg all made the list of potential Twitter 12ers. Silicon Alley Insider, a site that few outside the tech blogosphere have ever heard of, made the final list. Twitter’s Suggested User List, as usual, has a large role to play here. But so does the general Web-savvy audience that Twitter attracts.

But enough of all this analysis. See the list for yourself and find your own trends.

Copyright Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive

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