Twitter has been on an acquisition spree of late, buying up visual creation platforms, design and production teams, improved audio discovery tools, and most recently, newsletter creation platform Revue.
So what’s driving this newfound momentum at Twitter? Is the platform, long criticized for its lumbering progress, finally turning a new leaf?
Well, kind of. The real driving force behind Twitter’s accelerating product development is not so much evolution as it is preservation.
Early last year, investment firm Elliott Management Corp acquired more than $1 billion in Twitter shares in a move to gain more power on the Twitter board. It then launched an internal campaign to oust CEO Jack Dorsey.
Elliott’s main point of contention at the time was that Twitter would be better served if it had a CEO solely focused on improving the company's performance, which has fluctuated over the last few years. Dorsey, who is also the CEO of rising payments provider Square, may not be able to provide that focus, and with Dorsey also, at that stage, planning a move to Africa for some months in 2020, Elliott’s team had raised serious concerns over his suitability for the role, and his capacity to maximize the potential of the social app for the sake of investors.
And those concerns may well be valid - under Dorsey, Twitter has, seemingly, improved user engagement (though it did invent a new metric to measure this), but not in any significant way.
As you can see here, over the last year, Twitter added 35 million new monetizable daily active users, its own, custom usage stat which it began reporting back in 2018 to better represent actual, valuable engagement on the platform. In 2017, Twitter reported having 109 million mDAU - so in total, it's added 78 million new daily active users over the course of the last three years.
For comparison, Snapchat's added 83 million more DAU in the same time frame, while Pinterest has added 267 million more monthly actives within that same period. The data points are not directly comparable, but when you also factor in the consideration that former US President Donald Trump leaned on Twitter as his key platform of choice, it does seem like Twitter has had its moment, like it should have been able to capitalize more on that momentum over this period.
For better or worse, Twitter seems like it is what it is. Which is not so bad - the platform serves some 187 million daily active users, and it’s now become a key part of the broader interactive landscape.
But as a publicly listed company, Twitter also needs to show growth and evolution. Shareholders expect a return, and Twitter can’t placate them with minor usage improvements and fluctuations in ad revenue. Which is why the Elliott Management team were seeking change at the top, in an effort to improve the company's fortunes.
Eventually, Dorsey was able to negotiate a stay of execution with the Elliott investor group. Dorsey would be given time to implement a new growth strategy, and Elliott’s group would gain Twitter board seats, giving it a more in-depth view of the platform’s performance. Then COVID-19 hit, and the subsequent uncertainty around it and the US election seemed to give Dorsey some more breathing room.
But as we move into the next stage, beyond the chaos of 2020, the Elliott team’s challenge is clearly, once again, front of mind for Twitter.
So it’s moving fast - it’s going the Facebook approach in copying Clubhouse with its own audio Spaces feature, while it’s also looking to update its Fleets offering, and provide new monetization opportunities for creators via integration with Revue. In combination, Dorsey will be hoping to show a renewed approach to platform growth, that'll keep the Elliott team happy.
But will that work?
The problem with all of these new elements is that none of them actually fit with Twitter’s main offering, nor complement tweeting in a direct way.
Fleets, I guess, adds something new, and it does align with the broader social media Stories trend, while the jury's still out on whether audio social will be a relevant consideration for the general public (note: much like live-streaming, Clubhouse is already showing signs of being overrun by low-quality content). Revue, also, doesn’t directly tie into Twitter’s platform. There are opportunities there - but will they help Twitter improve its market position?
And more importantly, will they placate the Elliott Management team, which will no doubt be looking to oust Dorsey again if things don’t improve significantly in 2021?
That’s what’s really going on here. While it may look like Twitter's making big efforts to broaden its horizons, it’s really responding to internal pressure to maximize its opportunities sooner rather than later.
And it might work, Twitter could have some grand plan to bring all of these new elements together into a more engaging, immersive Tweet experience. But it also might not, and that could lead to significant change at the app.
What does Twitter look like without Jack Dorsey? Are Dorsey’s own fundamental beliefs and approaches on things - like, say, tweet editing - actually holding the platform back?
2021 will be a key year of development for the platform, so expect significant changes, major experiments. And maybe, a change in management, depending on how things progress.