Things may be slowing down at Twitter for the moment, but with approximately 305m monthly active users, the return of Jack Dorsey, and some big changes in the pipeline, it’s still a key platform for ad placement, brand development and user engagement.
But having said that, Twitter has a number of problems – a lot of which go hand-in-hand…
- Poor/confusing UX for new users, especially around discoverability of accounts to follow and topics
- Near useless ‘search’ abilities
- Online bullying/trolling
- Large numbers of bot accounts (I’d guess almost half of registered accounts)
- Poor/slow app development on key platforms
- How ‘message vs medium’ is incorrectly perceived by some users (reducing usage) and is off putting to non-users
- Seemingly endless board changes and poor employee retention
- Slow (now declining) active user growth
- A plummeting stock price (due to the aforementioned lack of user growth)
I won’t bore you by discussing all of those (you can contact me directly if you’d like me to hear me rant about them), but at least a couple are key to Twitter’s long and short-term future.
The key short-term focus revolves around the fact that Twitter’s revenues aren’t performing too badly (they matched expectations by posting $710 million in revenue, up 48% versus the previous year's figure, and beat estimated adjusted EPS by more than 33% by reporting $0.16), but growth has stalled across all markets (even declining slightly in 2015 Q4 to 305m monthly active users when those using the service via text message have been excluded), meaning the stock price has declined to an all-time low. So, amongst other things, Twitter needs to both urgently grow its’ user base and continue to increase its’ revenue from advertising.
To combat the stock price and user decline, recently-returned CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey, is ringing in some big changes – both on the business side and the product/platform side, a couple of them being…
First View is a new premium advertising feature, whereby an auto-playing video ad will be placed at the top of targeted users’ timelines for up to 24 hours. The top of the timeline is prime real estate, so expect such an ad placement to not come cheap (rumoured cost is approximately 1m USD). But being in that spot means that if the content can capture the users’ attention and is engaging, it could mean more clicks, shares and conversions.
Twitter is also currently rolling out its’ long-rumoured algorithmic timeline update. While some users may not be too keen on it (myself included – not that I’ll use it), it could partially help reverse the platforms’ stagnation in growth and push more conversions for advertisers if/when the feature is expanded upon.
The feature is currently set up to utilise an algorithm to sort the users’ initial timeline – in a similar way Facebook does – bringing tweets it feels are more important to the user to the forefront (similar to the current ‘While you were away’ feature). The hope is that, depending upon this features performance, it may also eventually aid user ad targeting and help push promoted or shared tweets to more users.
But, a problem with both of these features is user adoption. Both are only supported in the official Twitter apps and web portal, and the algorithmic timeline currently has to be opted in to via the account settings – although I can see this changing in the future, at least for new users.
To me, Twitter usage can, very broadly, be split in to a small number of groups (which can be broken down even further). But a large number of those potential converters (if using the new features) may not actually even see them.
- Power user group 1: Users who follow hundreds, if not thousands, of other Twitter users and mostly use the platform for marketing/promotion. They’re not likely to see much of their timeline, but will benefit from the algorithmic timeline picking the best stuff for them when they access the app.
- Power user group 2: More tech-savvy users who try to limit the number they follow to a manageable level (or utilise lists) so that they can generally keep up to date with what’s going on. Unfortunately, a large number of these users use 3rd party client apps and won’t see the new features. I personally use a 3rd party app on all my devices, and two specific reasons - so that I can view my timeline as I like it and without ads/promoted tweets. These are also users who are quite likely to convert with a well-targeted and created ad (if they were to see them).
- Casual user: Younger users and those other users that aren’t quite so tech-savvy and tend to just leave the settings to default. These users will likely see and use the new features and could/should be prime audiences for targeting creative and well-made ads to.
Even Marshall Manson, managing director of EMEA Social at Ogilvy, doesn’t have the brightest of outlooks for Twitter, telling me “Twitter’s user base is eroding, and other platforms like Snapchat are driving the innovation agenda with marketers. Unfortunately, Twitter is playing catch up, but just catching up won’t be good enough to win back users or the buzz that goes with pushing the edge. They need a leap ahead. And perhaps that leap ahead is being developed behind the scenes somewhere, but absent any evidence of that, it’s hard to see anything but a long, slow decline."
So with user numbers declining, and a fair number of the engaged user base not even seeing or using the new features designed to engage and drive conversions, how is Twitter going to kick-start growth again and continue to appeal to advertisers as a platform? There are a few key areas it could look to improve:
- Bring development back in-house and spend real time and money on apps on key platforms, especially desktop clients.
- Develop advertiser power features and tools in a similar way Facebook has over the last few years.
- Revamp search and discoverability on the platform. It's awful, especially for new users.
- If users are going to use 3rd party apps, leverage this and restrict tokens and API access unless 3rd parties include key Twitter features such as promoted tweets etc.
- Develop and innovate new features. As I’m writing this, Twitter have just pushed out native GIFs and the ability to record/send video via DM. Hardly innovative, but key feature sets nonetheless.
- Focus on Messaging and perhaps look at making the DM experience more appealing (removing the 140-character limit recently was a good start).
- Make direct customer/brand engagement easier. DMs can be set to open, but sometimes there’s still the need for users to follow each other to communicate privately – an awkward process. Facebook has just begun leveraging Messenger for this purpose, and having used it a number of times already to speak to brands and companies, I can tell you it’s infinitely easier, simpler and a better experience than Twitter’s ‘solution’. (See update below)
Key social analysts and commentators may think Twitters’ future looks bleak, but I like to think that with Dorsey back, and a number of new executives, things are finally beginning to be pushed in the right direction – just hopefully not too late. Now we just have to wait and see if the company can execute at speed and with great quality features/products for both consumers and advertisers alike (not something they’ve been known for in the past).
For now, I’ll continue to be an avid Twitter user and evangelist, and should you wish to follow me, you can right here.
An abridged version in Finnish will be coming soon here.
Update: A few hours after publishing this post, Twitter made an announcement addressing one of the specific points I'd made - utilising the platform to make a better customer service experience.