If You Were Twitter, What Would You Do?
Here are the key issues you're facing:
- The market's looking for user growth where there just isn't any - Twitter's barely seen any growth in its US audience for the past six quarters (even a slight decline in the latest numbers), while its international user base has only grown by 40m in the last seven quarters going back to Q2 2014. For comparison, Instagram's added around 200 million new users in that same time span, while Facebook added 46 million users in the last quarter alone. For whatever reason, Twitter's growth rate is slowing, it's not catching on with new users in the same way other platforms are.
- Revenue growth is strong, but not as strong as you'd like it - Twitter posted a 48% increase, year-on-year, in 4th quarter revenue, matching analyst estimates by reaching $710 million. But those estimates were revised down after Q3, where analysts had, at the time, been projecting around $737 million for the quarter. Now that's not overly bad - $2.2 billion in full-year revenue is still a great result for the company, but again, there's that inevitable comparison. Facebook just last week reported that they'd reached $17.9 billion in revenue for the full year, more than eight times the result from Twitter. Such a comparison may seem unfair - no one could've predicted ongoing the rise and rise of Zuckerberg's social giant. But that comparison will always exist, and when you see upstarts like Snapchat boasting about their rapid growth, particularly among younger users (traditionally Twitter's key demographic) you have to wonder whether Twitter can remain as 'essential' as it once was.
- Ideas seem to be running thin - In the last six months we've seen Twitter introduce Moments, Twitter polls, 'hearts' instead of 'stars', autoplay Periscope broadcasts in-stream, a re-vamped home page for non logged-in users and, just this week, an algorithmically-defined timeline to help people find more relevant tweets (currently opt-in). While all of these updates are interesting within themselves, none are ground-breaking - Moments, in particular, hasn't delivered anywhere near the attention Twitter would have hoped (at least, not yet). There's also been speculation about an emoji reactions tool (similar to Facebook), 10,000 character tweets and an in-stream GIF option. Again, all of these could be great additions, but none of them look set to boost new users or user engagement in any significant way.
(a still from the TV commercial for Moments, Twitter's first TV campaign)
When you see all these things together, you start to get an idea of the uphill battle Twitter's facing, and some insight into why Jack Dorsey and Co would be keen to consider anything, whether that annoys the 'power users' or not.
I should stress here that Twitter is not dying - as noted by Will Oremus for Slate, that's a false narrative, the revenue numbers alone highlight its strength - but Twitter is struggling to meet market expectations, and market expectations fuel overall perceptions. And those perceptions can keep new users from even bothering to give the platform a chance.
If it's dead anyway, as the title of a post from The New Yorker suggested recently, why bother with it, everyone knew this day would come, right? Everyone knew this social media thing was just a fad.
Twitter's not dying - check out the activity on the platform during any major event, anywhere in the world, and you'll see the utility that the service provides, the important role in now plays in our wider communicative landscape. But Twitter does need to make changes - it's simply not an option to continue to lose value at the rate the company's stock is currently dropping.
So what do you do?
What's concerning at the moment is that Twitter increasingly seems to be running out of answers. This week they've introduced two new ad products, both of which seem like back pocket ideas they've held onto in case of emergency. The first was the introduction of their new 'First View' ad units, video ads that'll appear at the top of every Twitter's users' timeline for a 24-hour period. This is no doubt an expensive option, putting it out of the reach of the majority of Twitter advertisers, but given that cost, even if only a few major players take it up, it could provide a solid revenue boost for the company.
The second was the addition of new ads attached to individual tweets - last week, Twitter quietly changed the way tweets are presented so that tweet conversations now pop-out in a single click.
And that's fine - it has its positives and negatives, but no big deal either way. But what it has enabled Twitter to do is to create more ad real estate - click onto one of your Twitter conversations right now and scroll down and you'll likely see something like this:
And again, that's no big deal - it's out of the way and not highly intrusive. But you'd also suspect it's probably not very effective as a result - it's beyond the actual conversation, so your eyes don't even have to track over it, and Twitter's ad targeting isn't personalized enough to make these bottom of screen promos so focused and relevant that you're likely to be compelled to scroll down. In fact, the only real beneficiary of these ads, from what I can see, is Twitter. And it seems like a reaching effort, like that was an extra bit of real estate Twitter could use, but haven't yet, but could if things got real bad.
That element is an issue - that Twitter seems to be tapped out. If these are the ideas they're throwing up, then I don't see a lot to inspire confidence - and clearly, I'm in line with the market with this thinking. In Twitter, I don't see a company that's dying out, I see a company that's failing to see its value, that's trying too hard to be something that it's not. Now, that's obviously easy for an outsider to say, and I've got no doubt that the many brilliant minds working at Twitter have thought through every possible scenario and option, but it seems to me that Twitter, rather than trying to keep up with user trends, should focus on the power it already has, the capacity for what it can do that other networks cannot. That power, for Twitter, is in its data, its real time pulse of the world, in the thousands of tweets flowing through its circuits every second of every day.
Twitter, better than any other resource in the world, can uncover real-time trends and patterns as they happen.
No one, nothing in the world can compare with Twitter on this front. Facebook can't because so much of its data's walled in - it's hard to highlight how trends are evolving when they're not able to show you the full trail of where conversations are originating from, and anonymized data trails are great, but largely only valuable in retrospect. No other platform is close to Twitter on this - so why doesn't the platform focus on that strength and show its users, both existing and prospective, why they need to use Twitter to stay on top of the latest news and happenings?
Twitter could do this via their trends sidebar - at the moment, Twitter's trends selection which it shows to each user isn't highly focussed, it's generic to a specific region but the breadth of topics vary so much across the platform that most of the conversations aren't going to have significant appeal among a wide range of user groups.
So make them more specific.
Twitter has the capacity to track trending topics based on hashtags, content being shared, correlations among influential users and a range of other data points. These options are not only possible, they already exist in apps like BuzzSumo and Nuzzel, with filtering options based on Twitter data that can hone down your content focus to very specific interests.
If Twitter's looking to implement an algorithm to boost engagement, let that algorithm be one that highlights relevant content to each user based on what they commonly tweet about - but not by uncovering tweets they may have missed in-stream. Use that sidebar real estate to best effect and show each person trending content that's most likely to be of relevance to them. If that listing was so compelling, so up-to-the-minute, so personalized and in-tune with each users' interests, people wouldn't be able to resist clicking through to learn more. People would be telling their friends about Twitter's improved focus and customization, people would be using the platform more and more because it would be serving a distinct purpose in their lives.
You may think that wouldn't be as relevant to younger users, but what if Twitter was detecting all the latest trends faster than anywhere else and the people who were on it were in the know before those on other platforms? And remember, the key element is personalization based on on-platform actions, so people would only be seeing the trends relevant to them, based on their tweet activity.
This is what Twitter does, what Twitter's good at, what distinguishes the platform from other social networks. And what's more, a more defined algorithm, attuned to each users' behaviors and interests, would also better inform Twitter's ad targeting. After a few months of refinement and feedback data on how each user was responding to the more personalized trends, Twitter would start to get a real sense of what topics are resonating with each audience, with each individual user - if you had a track of each specific trend each user was clicking on, that would become a powerful indicator of interest. This would enable Twitter to better target sponsored tweets and generate better ad results, based upon actual, on-platform activity.
But of course, I have no doubt that Twitter's already considered this, there's no question in my mind that Twitter's looking at their options in regards to smarter algorithms based on individual inputs - similar to how Facebook's News Feed works - and also how developments in artificial intelligence may be able to play a part in that wider movement (note: Twitter purchased AI startup Whetlab in June last year).
But it's possible, too, that Twitter might be looking at it the wrong way - there's no need, in my mind, to actually reduce the complexity in the way Twitter works or look at altering the way the tweet timeline functions, so much as there's a need to compel people to actually want to use the platform in the first place. If complexity was an issue, no one would use Snapchat - that interface is significantly less intuitive that Twitter's. But people work it out because everyone's on it, everyone's talking about it.
It's not about making Twitter easier, necessarily, it's about making it so compelling that people want to take the time to get involved.
This is how Twitter grew initially, right? Twitter's user-experience was arguably worse when hundreds of millions of users signed up to use it initially. Yet, those people did sign up and they did learn it. Because they wanted to. Because everyone was talking about it. In this sense, it's not about being more like Facebook or Snapchat or anything else, it's about being more like Twitter, in using the platform's strengths to advantage and building on Twitter's capacity to learn based on what people tweet.
Facebook's taught users, via their News Feed, to expect more control over their experience, to expect personalization and customization based on their, individual interests. If Twitter fails to do the same, they'll continue to lose ground, particularly as Facebook's system gets smarter and more attuned to each users' preferences, every day.
And while you'd expect that the current opt-in algorithm-fuelled timeline will, eventually, become the default, there may be other options that allow engagement to grow more organically.
Twitter doesn't have to be something else, and it doesn't necessarily have to settle for smaller numbers or worse market performance as a result of being what it is. But it does need to embrace its defining traits and strengths, and use them to deliver a more personalized user-experience, which, increasingly, is what people are growing to expect.
But it's easy to say from the outside looking in. Whether Twitter's actually able to achieve this, weighed down with the burden of market expectation and the pressure of flailing numbers, is another question entirely. I don't envy Jack and Co in this respect, but I do hope the platform is able to find a way.
Follow Andrew Hutchinson on Twitter