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Exponentially growing user base, brands eager to sign up, celebrity backing: Twitter seemed destined to succeed back in the early days.
So why does it seem to be tanking spectacularly, and where can it go from here?
Just in case you’re in any doubt as to whether Twitter needs to take drastic action, here is a graph of its share price performance over the last year.
$47.32 to $15.72: a 67% drop. Pretty abysmal stuff by anyone’s standards.
Many experts are saying 2016 is the year Twitter has to either make some big positive changes or risk becoming irrelevant.
2016 will be the year that Twitter either remains in the hands of super-users or rises like a Phoenix on steroids.
To do this, it is going to have to do something completely different to create mass appeal and regular use.
What is Twitter doing wrong?
Poor product decisions
We all woke up to a veritable frenzy of Twitter-directed rage on Saturday morning thanks to a fast-spreading rumour that Twitter’s timeline would becoming algorithmic – showing users what it thinks they want to see rather than what is happening in real time – as early as this week.
People were, quite justifiably (although: first world problems), pissed off. And the hashtag #RIPTwitter was born.
Twitter's To-Do List:— Matt Mitovich (@MattMitovich) February 6, 2016
1) Algorithmic sorting that no one asked for
173) Edit button that every asks for
But Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was quick to quell the flames of hearsay:
Hello Twitter! Regarding #RIPTwitter: I want you all to know we're always listening. We never planned to reorder timelines next week.— Jack (@jack) February 6, 2016
Notice, however, the words ‘next week’ at the end of that tweet.
It’s unclear at this stage whether Dorsey was being deliberately vague with the addition of those two words. If so, it sounds like we could still see an algorithmic timeline at some point.
It is also unfortunate that Dorsey referred to another of Twitter’s poor product decisions, ‘while you were away’, in a follow-up tweet.
It’s quite possibly the worst feature the site has ever introduced.
Look at "while you were away" at the top of your TL. Tweets you missed from people you follow. Pull to refresh to go back to real-time.— Jack (@jack) February 6, 2016
‘While you were away’ shows you a load of tweets that supposedly came to pass while you were offline.
The trouble is, it regularly shows you tweets you’ve already seen.
The other problem is it asks for feedback – ‘did you like this?’ – but no matter how many times you click ‘no’ it still keeps showing you the feature. Infuriating.
Not to mention the fact it completely detracts from the ‘live’ feeling of Twitter, one of its few remaining USPs.
Now let’s talk about the 10,000-character limit. I wrote a post about this back when the announcement came out and people seemed to agree with my sentiment: it’s a terrible idea.
Let me reiterate some of the reasons why it’s a terrible idea:
- Twitter will lose its USP (forced brevity).
- We’ll lose the ‘live’ feeling.
- The site will become a sea of marketing slurry.
During the #RIPTwitter debacle somebody posted a very apt Jurassic Park quote.
This subheading really leads on from the previous one. Most of Twitter’s poor product decisions seem to come from some burning desire to innovate for innovation’s sake.
"Having seen the massive backlash to the 'more than 140 characters' changes - first to DMs and now possibly to tweets - I'd have to point to its desperate need to unnecessarily innovate as one issue," says Henry Elliss, Managing Director at Tamar.
Twitter just doesn’t seem to be able to capture the user base's imagination with exciting or progressive new features. Everything seems to be a misstep.
Innovation would never happen without people being willing to make mistakes. I can accept that. Brands need to experiment and try ‘out there’ things in order to evolve and grow.
But in Twitter’s case it just seems to be one silly decision after another, not at all reflective of what its users are hungry for. With the amount of data it has on its users, how is it possible to get things so wrong?
This isn't necessarily something Twitter is doing wrong, but it certainly helps explain why it’s having such a hard time.
Back when Twitter first became popular it was operating in a very different market. Now there are many more social networks and some of them – Instagram and Snapchat, for example – are taking a big bite out of Twitter’s market share.
As Alice Reeves, Senior Social Media Manager at Jellyfish, puts it:
Twitter has been steadily losing younger users to image-based platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat. We’re now reaching a point where many businesses perceive Twitter as being outdated.
Reeves also believes brands don't see as much traffic or engagement from Twitter as they used to.
"First of all this dip came because it was harder to get noticed in an increasingly noisy space and brands weren’t seeing ROI," she says. "But now it’s probably due to the fact that individual users are turning away from the platform to quieter or more private spaces where it’s easier to connect with friends.
I would also guess that the introduction of Instagram Ads has had quite a negative impact on Twitter’s ad revenue. As an agency, we’ve consistently seen higher engagement, higher CTRs and lower CPCs from Facebook and Instagram Ads versus Twitter Ads.
When you’re competing for marketing budgets, there’s no contest – and Twitter usually loses out.
Losing its identity
When Twitter came out it was fresh and new, different from Facebook because it enabled meaningful conversation between people in a relatively non-commercial environment.
“In the early days of Twitter, it was absolutely fantastic,” says Reeves. “There weren’t huge numbers of people on the platform, brands hadn’t really cottoned onto it yet, there weren’t any ads and you could get involved in hilarious, interesting and beautiful conversations with total strangers.
As Twitter’s user base grew and businesses and brands got in on the action, advertising and overly promotional material began to creep into the feed. As well as following brands, people kept on following more people. The space has just kept getting noisier and noisier.
This kind of thing is an inevitable by-product of success, of course, and nobody could blame Twitter for creating a platform that millions of people want to use.
The problem comes from the way in which it reacted to that rapidly increasing noise. In short: badly.
"Twitter doesn’t provide users with an in-platform means of filtering content in a truly meaningful way," says Reeves. "If you’re following more than a few hundred active users then it becomes difficult to sort through the noise to get to the content you want to see.
"Throw promoted tweets into the mix – most of which are too promotional for users to want to genuinely engage with – and the job gets even harder.
Twitter must ensure that it doesn’t become a chore for its users – it needs to focus on making content as easy as possible to discover and engage with.
Moments is evidence of Twitter's desire to make sense of the content vortex it has created, but even that doesn't seem to have caught on.
So you can see why an idea such as the new timeline algorithm might crop up in the boardroom.
But that is Twitter’s Catch-22. If it takes action to help people sift through the noise it risks losing the thing that makes it so unique and appealing in the first place: that ‘live’ feeling.
Twitter’s ability to strike that balance could be key to its future survival.
“It needs to decide whether the risk of losing some of the most active and dedicated users is worth it to attract a new audience or entice back users who have abandoned the platform,” says Reeves.
Where can Twitter go from here?
Listen to users, not just advertisers
I get that Twitter needs to think about its paying customers, i.e. the brands who pay for advertising. But if it continues to alienate its users there won’t be anyone to advertise to in the first place.
This Twitter poll resurfaced at the weekend:
What do you think about those answer choices? Do they reflect a company that has the slightest clue why people use its product?
Henry Elliss says:
Twitter could probably calm some of the backlash by actually listening to its customers and trying to innovate in more sensible ways.
Putting the words ‘innovate’ and ‘sensible’ together might seem paradoxical to some of the ‘whacky idea’ types among you, but in Twitter’s case it’s a fair point.
As I mentioned above, by the very nature of its platform Twitter has an enormous amount of data on its customers. It can ‘listen’ to them to see what they’re saying about the social network.
Making changes to your site based on what the majority of users actually want? Now there’s an innovative proposition...
One of the big accusations against Twitter is its seeming inability to do anything truly new or unique.
“It seems like Twitter is trying harder and harder to emulate the Instagram experience,” says Reeves. “First with the in-feed images, then the star-shaped ‘favourite’ button turning into a heart-shaped ‘like’ button, now the potential character limit removal.
"This isn’t the right way to go – it’s likely to leave many users wondering what Twitter’s unique proposition is."
Twitter needs to think long and hard about what its USPs are and not arbitrarily dilute them by introducing changes such as the character limit increase or the dreaded algorithmic timeline.
It also needs to work out where it sits in the sea of social media options and how it can tweak its platform in a way that feels fresh rather than just – in the words of an insomniac Fight Club protagonist – a copy of a copy of a copy.
“If Twitter is going to fight back and re-establish its number two position,” says Reeves, “it needs to come up with something totally new and unique.
Emulating other social networks’ functionality is only going to mean that it’s forever playing catch-up without ever getting ahead.
Conclusion: so much potential, so little clue
I’m going to come right out there and say it: I love Twitter and use it multiple times a day, partly because I’m a news junkie and it's still by far the best place to get live updates when a major event is taking place.
So this article is kind of a personal one for me. I really, really want Twitter to succeed.
But I want it to do so without losing the things that made it such an amazing platform in the first place.
It just needs to stop making bizarre product decisions and focus on the unique elements that make it fantastic, and then develop and build on those.
Twitter has so much going for it, but if it's not careful it's in danger of becoming as vacuous and tedious as Facebook.
This quote from Henry Elliss sums it up nicely:
I've been to Twitter HQ in San Francisco and was blown away by how cool and exciting it was as a workplace. But none of that excitement seems to be filtering out to the public.