As has been well documented, Twitter's been stuck in a rut for some time now.
The biggest issue, of course, is user growth - Twitter's seen no meaningful increase in its core US user base for the past 7 quarters, while its international audience has expanded by only 45 million since Q2 2014. Somehow, at some stage, Twitter lost its shine, it's not as 'essential' as it once was to the wider online community. And that's not a disaster, in itself - Twitter still has more than 310 million monthly active users and it's bringing in more than $2 billion in annual revenue. On that data, you could argue that Twitter's still strong, and has the capacity to remain viable for some time. But a recent social media news story put a different angle on Twitter's ongoing woes, one which could have significant, long-term implications for the value and viability of the micro-blog platform.
Keeping You in the Know
Last month, reports emerged that Facebook had seen a significant decline in the sharing of personal updates on the network - posts about people's thoughts and photos, etc. A decline in personal sharing is a big problem for the network - Facebook's built the biggest, most targeted ad platform ever created on the back of personal data. All the information you share on The Social Network gives them more ways to understand you, to know you, and to target marketing messages at you based on those insights. The report, published on The Information, suggested that personal sharing on the platform had declined by around 21%, prompting Facebook to establish an internal team to combat what they've labeled 'context collapse'.
But here's the thing - while the sharing of personal updates has declined on the network, which Facebook doesn't deny, Facebook told Bloomberg that the overall level of sharing has remained "not only strong, but similar to levels in prior years". What that means is that while people are sharing fewer personal updates, they're filling that 21% gap by sharing more links and news items, more topical information related to trends and current events.
And that's a problem for Twitter.
You see, news and current events is what Twitter does best - while Facebook has always reigned in personal sharing and in keeping people connected to their friends and family, Twitter's been the real-time king, the place you go to get up-to-the-minute information on the latest trending topics and discussions. And it still is, for now at least, but typically, Twitter's also been the place where people share links to news content, where that discussion occurs. If more of that's now switching across to Facebook, it suggests two things:
- Facebook's algorithms, and people's understanding of them, are improving, enabling them to deliver more news and media content to users relative to their interests, keeping them on-platform for longer.
- Facebook's becoming less of a 'personal' space and more a platform for general discussion, which is bad for Twitter.
So where's all the personal sharing going? Facebook suspects more people are turning to Snapchat - a recently reported Facebook survey asked users where they were more likely to share personal updates these days, with Snapchat featured prominently among the response options.
But as noted, the core concern for Twitter here is that news content and links are being shared on Facebook at a significantly higher rate. So if people are sharing more news and information on Facebook - and Facebook's making a bigger push to be more involved in real-time news and events - where does that leave Twitter?
The other issue with reduced sharing on Twitter is that it also means reduced contextual data flowing through their system. An element of their business that Twitter's been working to expand upon is their data offerings - Twitter data can be used to predict everything from stock market crashes to earthquake after-shocks, and that, obviously, represents significant value. In fact, the social listening industry has been almost entirely built on Twitter conversation.
But if fewer people are active on Twitter, and people are sharing less content and subsequent discussion on the platform, then that data, too, becomes less representative.
For example, in a recent report on the current state of the US Presidential Election, the data showed that Donald Trump's clearly leading the way in terms of total mentions and sentiment - but is that still an accurate enough indicator, given the reduced, or at least stagnant, audience reach of the platform?
And even if it is, the fact that such a question is being raised is a concern for Twitter's data products.
Where to Now?
And here's the bigger question being posed by many pundits and market analysts alike - 'What does Twitter do next?'
The company searched for months trying to find a replacement CEO, only to come back to former CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey, which seemed like a reasonable move, but not one which came naturally, or, seemingly, unanimously. Since taking on the role, Dorsey's made several moves, but none of them have yet paid off in any meaningful way. Their big play was 'Project Lightning', which eventually became 'Moments', Twitter's push to showcase what's great about the platform and help non-users better understand why they should get involved. They even ran a TV ad for Moments - their first ever TV campaign - underlining the importance they placed on the feature.
A still from the TV ad for 'Moments'
But thus far, Moments has failed to deliver. In the seven months since Moments was launched, Twitter's Monthly Active User count has barely shifted. In defence of the offering, Twitter has said that Moments has driven a 6% increase in visitor time on site among non logged-in desktop users in the US, UK and Brazil. But that's not much, especially when you consider that this was their big hope.
So what then? Introduce an algorithm?
Twitter's reported that the response to their recently introduced feed algorithm has been largely positive, with an overall increase in Tweets, Retweets, replies, and likes, while less than 2% of users have opted out, despite the initial backlash. Which is also great, but not overly significant.
So what then?
Part of Twitter's problem is it seems stuck with few places to go next. Whereas an app like Snapchat has been able to constantly innovate and add new features in response to user demand and behavioural shifts, Twitter's response rate has slowed and it's become more and more pigeonholed into sticking with the thing they do - a real-time tweet stream, the place for real-time news.
Twitter's tried to improve their direct messaging functionality in line with the increased audience engagement with messaging apps, and they've looked to introduce new tools like GIFs and emoji. But really, their options seem limited. The fact that they've looked to cash in on logged out or non-Twitter users by serving them ads highlights that ideas are running thin - which begs the question: "Is Jack Dorsey the man to take the platform to the next level?"
Leading the Way
And this is another element to consider in the Twitter conundrum. Of the social platform's that have seen significant and ongoing success, the one constant has been their core leadership.
Mark Zuckerberg is obviously the best example, turning from 'frat boy founder' to 'visionary world-changer', but even smaller players have had a stable leader, someone who's taken the reigns and been the key driver of change.
Snapchat has Evan Spiegel, whose direction is slowly and steadily growing the app, without damaging user experience.
Instagram has Kevin Systrom, and while he's not as well known as the first two, Systrom's been with the platform since its inception, and has helped grow the company in line with audience demand. Now Systrom, of course, does have an advantage, in that he's been able to lean on the guidance of parent company Facebook since The Social Network purchased the platform back in 2012, but even so, Systrom's steady guidance has helped keep the platform on a steady path, aligned to their longer-term vision.
Pinterest was founded by current CEO Ben Silberman.
In fact, of all the major social networks, only Twitter and LinkedIn have had CEOs who were not founders (Dick Costolo and Jeff Weiner) - and arguably, those two platforms have been the least innovative and adaptive over time.
That doesn't offer any answers, of course - and Twitter's already faced the issue of "if not Dorsey, then who?" But it does raise a question about clarity of vision and alignment to your community in growing social platforms, something Twitter has not yet mastered.
All this adds up to a concerning predicament for Twitter and its future prospects - though they do, still, have one ace up their sleeve.
NFL broadcast rights.
Last month, Twitter announced that they'd won the rights to broadcast live digital streams of Thursday Night Football games on the platform. Now, how that will actually work no one really knows, but it'll give Twitter a new way to connect with users, a new way to showcase what the platform can do and a means to reach a whole new audience. And while it's hard, at this stage, to imagine that it's going to be a game-changing move for the platform, in some respects, it has to be. Twitter's NFL deal has a lot riding on it - this is Twitter's next big shot, its chance to expand its audience base and show that they can adapt and remain an integral channel, a key part of their users' lives.
If that doesn't happen, expect to see big changes at the micro-blog giant. Another CEO change. An acquisition. Whatever it may be, Twitter's challenges aren't looking to get any easier.
The NFL deal may well be their own 'Hail Mary' attempt.