Twitter is Dead. Long Live Twitter.

by Ian Rosenwach on 5.6.2014

Twitter has had a lot of explaining to do of late. They need to onboard and activate new users while keeping existing users happy. They have to help Wall Street and the media understand Twitter’s business. Last but not least, they have to ensure advertisers see the value in Twitter as an ad platform. How is one to make sense of all these competing interests? 

Back in 2009 I wrote about Twitter, TV, and content filters. Twitter then as now has very little curation, or content filters. That post focused more on the appeal of amateur vs. professional content, and if Twitter’s level playing field for content creators would hurt rather than help it.

Now that Twitter is a public company reporting quarterly earnings, the question has taken on new meaning.

The Cable TV Analogy

An interesting and well-informed observation about Twitter comes from Jonah Peretti, Founder of Buzzfeed. He says Twitter is for “interest-based content” while Facebook content is for “broad human emotions and things that everyone can relate to.”

This reminds me of broadcast (Facebook) and cable (Twitter) TV, and provides a useful lens to look at how people consume each respective service.

The central product question is – how Twitter can become easier to digest for the mass market?

Our cable TV package comes as a cleanly curated bundle. There’s not tens of thousands of channels, but hundreds, each of which has been selected by “tastemakers” who (in theory) understand the content appetite of their market. Twitter has the same breadth of interest-based content as cable, but there are no tastemakers to curate a selection of channels to spoon-feed to users.

In the case of cable TV, decisions are made based on geography, demographics, Nielsen data, and I’m sure other data points. Twitter has access to a different set of data, but only if the users provides them with that access.

A Ball of Confusion

Recent pieces on the impending rise or doom of Twitter agree that Twitter, now that it’s a public company, is on the position of having to develop the product to appeal to a wider audience while not alienating core users. A common software challenge, especially in products that saw an initial surge in growth from a tight-knit user community.

There’s also debate over what metrics to use to judge Twitter’s success. Some say monthly active users (MAU) isn’t as important a metric for Twitter as it is for Facebook.

Bloomberg quoting Chris Sacca –

Sacca said Twitter shouldn’t be judged by its monthly active user numbers. Twitter is being unfairly compared to Facebook, he said, where monthly active users are more important because the activity is social. At Twitter, which is more focused on the spread of information, investors should be paying attention to how people’s tweets are magnified in the media and on television, he said.

This feels like a stretch. Twitter makes the vast majority of their revenue (85% last I checked) from native ads in user timelines. The rationale behind MAU as a key metric is that more MAU’s mean more timeline views which in turn leads to more advertising revenue. Seems simple enough. Twitter doesn’t directly make money when tweets are magnified in the media. Maybe there is a better metric….average timelines views/user?

Tweets magnified in the media might help drive users and advertisers to Twitter, but there’s little-to-no direct revenue. This seems to me to be a customer acquisition tactic as opposed to a large and impending revenue stream.

Will Oremus at Slate posits that Slate is not a social network but a social media platform –

Media platforms, by contrast, connect publishers with their public. Those connections tend not to be reciprocal. One Twitter user may be followed by millions of strangers whom she feels no obligation to follow back, any more than an evening news anchor feels the need to check in with each of her viewers every night at 6. As a media platform, Twitter’s chief function is to help people keep up with what’s going on in the world, and what influential people are thinking and doing at any given time. In that regard, it’s closer to a news service than a social network.

Fair enough, but both social networks and media platform’s make money the same way – advertising! One could argue it’s in fact better to be a social network, since they tend to know more about their users which enables them to more effectively sell their audience to advertisers.

Lastly, Ben Thompson suggests Twitter create curated channels –

Instead of trying to teach new users how to built a curated follower list, build the lists for them. Don’t call them lists, though; embrace Twitter’s TV connection and make them “channels.” Big basketball game? Go to the basketball channel, populated not with the biggest celebrities but with the best and most entertaining tweeters. Build similar channels for specific teams in all sports. Do the same for Apple, Google, and technology; liberals, conservatives, and politics in general; have channels for the Oscars, the Olympics and so on and so forth. And make them good, devoid of the crap that pollutes most hashtags and search results. If the ideal Twitter experience is achieved with a curated list, then provide curated lists and an easy way to switch among them.

A great idea but there’s one problem – how is Twitter supposed to know what lists to build for a new user?

Removing Friction

Twitter-Recent-Visits

In a perfect world new Twitter users should be able to go to Twitter and see a personalized list of tweets.

This is not the case today, as people need to get an account, opt-in to give Twitter access to their recent website visits, and choose to follow their suggestions. Not a huge amount of work for the user, but every miniscule bit of friction results in user drop-off.

How could Twitter learn more about new users right when they sign up? There are many ways, including –

  1. Allow users to login with Facebook and pull their interests, etc from their Facebook account. Highly unlikely given competition between the two companies. But it does clarify how powerful a position Facebook is in to launch a Twitter-like service given what they know about their users. Paper is just the start.
  2. Make educated guesses based on the users I.P, gender, age, and any other data they can get their hands on. This can be accessed in a number of ways including working with ad tech & data platforms such as Demdex, Turn, etc.
  3. My recent web visit data

Twitter does in fact do #3. During sign up, a checkbox that reads “Tailor Twitter based on my recent website visits” is selected by default. You can learn more on this page.

How is Twitter able to access my browsing data, you ask? Simple – via those little Twitter buttons on widgets on websites you’ve visited! They look at the sites you’ve visited, find other users that have visited the same sites, then who those people follow on Twitter.

Conclusion

Twitter has a lot of explaining to do.

  • They have to help Wall St. understand how to measure the prospects for the business.
  • They have to help Advertisers understand the unique value that Twitter brings.
  • They have to ease the concerns of their most loyal users that Twitter hasn’t changed.
  • And, they have to help new users understand what Twitter is in the blink of an eye.

All this while maintaining a high company morale and motivated, inspired workforce.

Best of luck to them!

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