Twitter's recent challenges have been more than well documented, with widespread coverage about the platform's difficulties in growing its user base, its ongoing battle with on-platform trolls and abuse and the interest - then lack of - from potential suitors who might want to buy the company out.
But Twitter's latest earnings results showed various glimmers of hope.
For one, both monthly and daily active users were up for a second straight quarter, while revenue is also increasing. These elements might not be growing at the rate the company (and the market) would like, but they are on the rise. And that's an important point - despite their various challenges, Twitter still posted a $616 million revenue result for the quarter, which is strong no matter how you look at it.
Rumors of Twitter's pending demise have are largely overblown - Twitter's not going anywhere, it just needs to re-focus and re-group, which it's doing, starting with the shutdown of Vine and reduction of their workforce.
But the more important question, from a marketing standpoint, is what does all this mean for the future of outreach and ad options on the platform? Should advertisers be looking elsewhere, rather than building audience on a platform that's, seemingly, losing its shine? What's Twitter doing to improve their position and provide advertisers with more opportunities? And what does Twitter's re-focus on "what's happening now" and live-streaming mean for your brand?
To answer these questions, Twitter this week held an event titled "#WhatsNext: Creativity and Innovation on Twitter".
The event was streamed live on Periscope, enabling anyone to tune in - here's what was discussed, and revealed, at the presentation, and what it means for the future of the platform.
First up at #WhatsNext, Twitter COO Adam Bain took to the stage to outline the company's vision and its recent re-focus on the elements that matter most.
Bain re-iterated much of the positive news shared in the recent earnings report - usage is up in all the key metrics. Bain attributed these improvements to the changes they've made to the user experience, including the introduction of an algorithm which emphasizes "not just recency, but also importance". This is a significant shift in Twitter's traditional approach.
Bain also noted that they've made small changes to the new user experience, improving who to follow recommendations and highlighting more relevant content, which has driven more growth and active engagement. This will become more of a focus with Twitter working to boost their reliance on machine learning and personalization, which is a key area the platform needs to focus on in order to keep up with rising user expectation.
Bain said that there are four key questions people have when they come to Twitter:
"What's going on in the world?"
"What's happening in my world?"
These are the elements they're working to facilitate and amplify, and it's that focus that's lead to them expanding their efforts in live-streaming. As Bain notes, live enables people to not only "be in the know" but also to "see in the know", putting them right into the latest news and events by experiencing them as they happen.
On live-streaming, Bain also discussed the positive results, this far, of their NFL live-streams, noting that the audience for their Thursday Night Football broadcasts has grown every week. Bain also discussed their expanded sports partnerships for live, which includes their recent coverage of the Melbourne Cup, their first international live event partnership.
The focus of this coverage, says Bain, is to better facilitate both elements of the viewer experience - viewing and discussion.
"You'll come for the content, but you'll stay for the conversation that goes around it"
Bain says live-streaming is the purest embodiment of what Twitter's all about, which is why it's become such a focus. And not only that, given the evolving ways in which younger users, in particular, now consume content, live-streaming provides a great opportunity to reach them moving forward, with many of them now, according to Bain, "cutting or shaving the cords".
"I see this every Monday - so on Monday we do new hire orientation, so I walk into this room there's about 100 people or so, mostly 18 to 34 year olds, and I've started asking them the question: "do you have cable TV?" or "Do you have satellite TV?" and the shocking thing is that about 10% of the audience in the room now are now raising their hand."
This is the perspective from which Twitter views their migration towards more video and live-streaming, which is interesting to consider as we see the platform evolve in this space.
Next up at the event was Josh McFarland, Twitter's VP of Ad Product Development, who further explored Twitter's focus on video and how they've seen audience expectation evolve around video products on the platform.
McFarland noted that the development of mobile devices, and the role they now play in our interactive habits, has been the main driver in changing the content we see on the platform - it's now "something of a rarity" to get a text only tweet. As this shift has occurred, McFarland says, Twitter's monitored their audience data in order to be guided by what users want. Through this, Twitter noticed the demand increasing for video, which is what then lead them to putting more focus on this element.
In terms of overall trends, McFarland noted that 75% of the world's mobile traffic will be video by 2020 and they're seeing this reflected in their data - 93% of Twitter's video views already happen on mobile. But that shift has caused a significant re-alignment at Twitter - after all, the platform was originally built for quick, lightweight sharing of 140 characters. Given the rising video trend, Twitter's been forced to adapt.
McFarland outlined the rise of video into what he calls "three generational chapters":
- Linear Viewing - This is essentially traditional TV, with other people (TV networks) deciding what you're going to watch and where you're going to watch it. McFarland says this is a largely a passive experience, and really, is becoming a thing of the past.
- Time-shifted - Time-shifting is a more proactive video consumption mode, putting more control into the hands of the consumer - McFarland notes video on-demand services like TiVo have driven the rise in this approach, with Netflix now being a front-runner. This is a step-up from the linear model, but still, it's other's people's programming, consumers are restricted by what's made available and when.
- Real-Time - And this is the current iteration, and where Twitter sees live video. In this new paradigm, the consumer is in control of everything - what you want to watch, how you want to watch it, who you want to watch it with. Not only that, but live-streaming is interactive, giving you a whole new way to consume and engage.
McFarland says that this last approach "speaks to what Twitter is". An important aspect of Twitter, McFarland says, is being able to democratize the world's access to information. "Text is information, but video is just information too". Based on this, Twitter is now seeking to broaden this experience through the expanded focus on live event coverage.
The focus element here is second-screening - there's lots of data to back up the fact that Twitter is often used as a compliment to people's TV viewing behaviors - in fact, according to McFarland, one in two people who regularly use Twitter do so while watching TV.
In extension of this, McFarland says that people who tweet while consuming TV content have a higher emotional connection to that material - 30% higher according to third-party research. The key problem with the integration between the two, which, McFarland says, CEO Jack Dorsey noted at a product development meeting - is that if you're tweeting and watching at the same time, you're always missing parts of one or the other, the live conversation or the live event.
That realization lead them to look at the process in a different way - "instead of talking about Twitter as the "second screen", why don't we talk about it as "the screen"?"
As exemplified by the data, the approach aligns with how the next generation of consumers are already consuming TV anyway - and further reiterating the stats quoted by Bain, McFarland noted that 75% of the viewing audience who watched the first three NFL broadcasts on Twitter were under 34 years old.
This approach is what's guiding their focus, including their mission to bring Twitter live-streams to your home TV - McFarland noted that people can now watch Twitter's streaming content through Apple TV, Amazon Fire and Xbox One without actually logging into the platform. This may seem counter-intuitive, not seeking that login connection, but McFarland says that they're confident that once people view the broadcasts, with the tweet content alongside, they'll be more compelled to sign-up to Twitter and join in, so they don't need to push log-ins through these apps at this stage.
In terms of advertising, McFarland noted that they have three video pillars:
- Promoted video
- Twitter Amplify
- Targeted Twitter ads within ad breaks
That last one is their big hope - as they're currently taking streams from broadcast providers, there are ad-breaks already built in. Twitter's using these gaps to show their own ads - and what's more, Twitter's working to make the ads served in those breaks individually targeted to every viewer, utilizing Twitter's existing ad options to enhance the process. This is a big step up on the traditional TV advertising approach - yes, you'll still see ads, but no longer will you get random, annoying adverts not relevant to you. It's still in its early stages, but Twitter's working to boost this offering.
McFarland also took an audience question on Twitter's approach to 360 video and he hesitated for a moment, before noting that they're working on something that he can't share, "but it's cool, really cool".
McFarland said Twitter's approach to 360 video, as well as VR and AR, is the same as how they've come to video - they're letting their audience guide their decision making process (McFarland says their developers are more like 'editors' guiding the user experience based on the data). McFarland did note that there are some evolutions of 360 video which are "better than what we're seeing today", and Twitter's coming announcement will be along those lines.
McFarland said new tools and features on this front will be announced at CES 2017 (January 5th - 8th)
Next up on stage was Liz Devlin, Twitter's Brand Strategy Lead, whose focus was on future developments and where the platform is headed.
Devlin started by noting that their approach to future developments and ideas is simple:
"Build ideas that create impact at the moments that matter"
Devlin then discussed the trends which they see dominating 2017, and how Twitter is approaching each element with new products and developments.
As noted in the above image, the four key trends Twitter sees defining 2017 are:
- Creativity with video - This includes wider adoption of live video and related tools
- Creativity with data - i.e. customization, using data to better focus and refine the user experience
- Relationships at scale - Devlin said that bots will become more prominent
- Machine Learning - Which Twitter will use in a variety of ways
In terms of video creativity, Devlin highlighted Apple CEO Tim Cook's recent presentation, in which Cook praised the new Apple TV integration with Twitter - which, according to Cook, makes watching video "more interesting, interactive and social".
Devlin also noted how Salesforce recently used live-streaming at their Dreamforce event to enhance the viewer experience and enable interaction in real-time.
In regards to data, Devlin noted that Twitter has access to "the largest public database of human behavior ever". Devlin then presented a breakdown of the data available within every tweet, insights which can be used for advanced research and targeting, including location, sentiment and the device each user is tweeting from.
Devlin then showed how such insight can be applied, using a recent campaign from Gatorade as an example. By focusing on specific elements within their target audiences' tweets (as shown in the below image), Gatordade worked to create more individually targeted and focused content that would be more resonant within that specific audience subset.
On 'relationships at scale', Devlin noted that their mission is to make Twitter "the best place to talk with and about businesses" and highlighted that, according to research, 1:1 interaction with a brands via Tweet leads to increased word-of-mouth activity.
Twitter's vision is to help fuel this by facilitating more conversation between brands and consumers - along this line, earlier this week Twitter introduced new tools to enable bot interaction via DMs in order to help brands scale such engagements.
But probably the most interesting insight of the day came in Devlin's discussion of the platform's advances in machine learning.
Devlin noted how they're using improved image recognition AI to facilitate a new type of ad offering where users will be able to gain access to exclusive content by taking a photo of an object - say, a product billboard. Once the user takes a photo and posts that photo to Twitter, an AI-fuelled system will recognize the content and automatically respond with a reward for that tweet
It's an interesting approach, and sounds similar to the image-recognition ads Snapchat's reportedly working on. Devlin also made note of how Twitter's utilizing machine learning in various other areas, including algorithm-recommended tweets and "Who to Follow" updates.
It's interesting to consider the possibilities of advanced machine learning based on Twitter's vast data set, and these new tools could lead to some exciting new possibilities for interactive content.
Twitter closed out the event by speaking with HP about how they've used Twitter as a marketing platform in various creative ways. If you're interested, you can view the full Periscope stream of the event (1hr 33min) here.
There was a lot of ground covered, providing an interesting overview of where Twitter is at and what you can expect to be coming next. The additional context around live-streaming definitely provides some clarity on this approach, and the focus on the next generation also helps underline that element, and why Twitter's going so hard on this aspect.
As noted, while much of the coverage around Twitter has been bleak, there are positive signs within the platform and its approach - there's much more potential to tweets than might be immediately obvious.
If Twitter can enhance these elements, and hone in their operations to maximize the benefits, there's a good chance Twitter can remain one of the bigger players in the social landscape.