What Is Twitter, Really?

Ben Ustick    By under Social Media Marketing.

If Twitter was ever going to go under, users of the social network would almost certainly beat the company in breaking the news. This irony is representative of the struggles Twitter faces as it tries to define (or redefine) itself. The recent announcement that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo would be stepping down at the end of the month is being trumpeted as a pivotal point for the struggling social media giant, a moment that many saw coming and some even called for. Twitter has battled slow user growth, a disappointing earnings report that was only made worse by being announced early on Twitter, and formidable challenges from a variety of other social networks that seem better situated to monetize. But does any of this mean that Twitter is doomed or even needs to change? To answer that we must ask what is Twitter and, more importantly, what does Twitter mean to those who use it, those who invest in it, and the businesses being asked to foot the bill?

What is Twitter?

As with many things in this life, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the value of Twitter is certainly no different. The expectations users, businesses, and investors have for Twitter and the expectations the company has for itself often seem contradictory. The social network serves a variety of different purposes to the many who use it, which makes it hard to create a unified strategy and singular purpose that ultimately drives decision making.

What is Twitter to Users?

"Twitter, as a service, is many things to many people at different times," Farhad Manjoo wrote in a recent article for the New York Times. To me, Twitter is a news network. Plain and simple. It's the best news source in the world, because it is the collective voice of the people, it is real-time, and it is where journalists live. In the movie Charlie Wilson's War, Tom Hanks, playing Charlie Wilson, is reading the newswire. When asked why he can't wait for the newspaper, he responds, "I think it's productive to know today's news today."

Twitter is the newswire for the new generation. People want the news as it happens and not a minute later. That this is possible is an amazing thing and one that can not be ignored. Appropriately, news networks and content creators have responded by making Twitter their go-to social network. As I was writing this article, a horrible and senseless act of violence was occurring at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. As with many other major breaking news stories and national tragedies, the events played out on Twitter, a fact that did not go unnoticed by its users. This tweet noted that television news networks were even behind their own Twitter coverage.

This is the world we live in now. It is standard practice to see a Twitter handle under the name of nearly every person reporting on a news, sports, or entertainment network. Nearly every blog or online news author profile links to a Twitter account and quite often has it directly next to the contributing author's name. The former is unheard of for any other social network, while the latter is a crapshoot among the major players.

Twitter's newsfeed is also customizable and unimpeded, a modern-day RSS with the extra perk of having your friends mixed in. In a post looking at Twitter's future last month, Julia Greenberg wrote, "Since its launch nine years ago, Twitter's user experience has always been driven by individual choices. Each user's stream is different and what she sees is organically determined by who she follows and when she checks in." In other words, Twitter isn't experimenting with your feed like Facebook. And that's something that businesses certainly love hearing, which brings us to our next Twitter subgroup.

What is Twitter to Businesses?

The motivations of businesses on Twitter are a bit easier to understand. It basically comes down to pushing content, service/product promotion, sharing relevant company news, relationship building, and customer service. Twitter (ignore their lack of an oxford comma) themselves say "Businesses across the globe use Twitter to generate awareness, connect with customers and drive sales." Perhaps not understanding its own value, Twitter leaves out the B2B relationship building and the collaborative economy that is invaluable to the businesses that use their service. As Aaron Lee writes, "It gives you the ability to connect with almost anyone in the world."

Collaboration starts with communication and Twitter makes that possible. Whether you're a craft brewery that would like to do a collaboration beer or a dinner pairing with a local restaurant or a web design company that would like to create a relationship with a web host, Twitter opens doors that were formerly closed. The conversational aspect of Twitter is one of its greatest attributes, and in addition to collaboration, it lends itself to great customer service. For the user, the appeal is clear. Taking a beef with a company public on Twitter seems to get problems dealt with expeditiously. And it's not all taking it on the chin for businesses. The opportunity to show your customer service chops in a public forum is priceless when done correctly.

Additionally, the type of customer who is likely to broadcast their issues on Twitter will in many cases be the same customer who runs to the rooftops and trumpets the successes of a business he or she appreciates. The chance to turn a dissatisfied customer into a brand advocate is one that should not be ignored. While customer service and collaboration offer clear benefit to businesses, it is harder to see the return when it comes to pushing content and promoting services or products. In many ways, the question of what is Twitter to businesses is almost more easily answerable by saying what it is not. And it is not an ad network.

What is Twitter to the Company and Its Investors?

"Twitter is never happy being Twitter, and it seems at times that its leadership doesn't realize or doesn't value what makes it so great," wrote programmer Marco Arment. This is a spot-on observation. Twitter and it's investors desperately want Twitter to be an ad network. The Mt. Rushmore of media, newspapers, magazines, radio stations, and television networks, are all ad-based economies and always have been. As the next in the evolution of preferred news delivery methods, Twitter needs to replicate the ability to profit off its ownership of the collective ear of the world. In a nice post on Medium, Anil Dash writes, "Twitter's struggle to win over investors is mostly due to the fact that most folks on Wall Street don't really have a nuanced view of how social networking and social media platforms work." Never was this more clear than when the results of a disappointing earnings reports were tweeted before Twitter's scheduled announcement.

The cost? $7.4 billion in market value. The irony was too sweet for words. The investors can only see Twitter for what they want it to be, but in that situation Twitter showed exactly what is. A source for breaking news. So where does monetization fit into all of this? And therein lies the problem. Or more accurately, one of the problems.

What is the Problem?

Image Credit- Flickr User-petesimon (2)Twitter would be easy to fix if there was only a single problem. Unfortunately, there are a multitude of problems. Slow user growth, monetizing with ads, unhappy investors, bad relationship with developers, an uninviting and overly aggressive community, and other social networks are among the biggest issues currently plaguing Twitter. One thread ties all these problems together.

As I wrote earlier, Twitter is the best news source in the world. However, sometimes it's not even a very good one. If there's no meaningful breaking news, national or world event, or celebrity scandal to consume the collective mind of the tweeting public, the users often times create the news, and the media often follows along. In this respect, one day stands out to me. February 26th, 2015. You may remember it as the day of the gold and white (or blue and black if you were in that camp) dress. You might also remember it as the day a pair of wiley llamas escaped from an Arizona zoo and evaded capture as Twitter followed along and erupted with glee. I remember it for both. I also remember it as the day that a very clear picture of Twitter emerged in my mind. Twitter is at the will of the people. The users of Twitter are at the will of the people. The businesses are at the will of the people. And the people on Twitter love it for exactly that.

But how does this democratic, hyper-real-time newsfeed impact the bigger picture? The attribute that defines Twitter and gives it value to its most loyal users is also its biggest challenge, impacting how every other aspect of Twitter operates.

Monetizing with Ads

When it comes to the fight for social ad spending, Twitter has barely landed a punch. Strategy Analytics reported of the $15.3 billion spent globally on social media advertising in 2014, only $1.2 billion ended up in the Twitter coffers. Facebook reigned supreme, bringing in an incredible $11.4 billion, which is 75% of the market for the math majors out there. Making matters worse, ad spending seems to be plateauing. So what's going on? Why don't businesses want to spend money on Twitter?

In an article for The Wall Street Journal, Jack Marshall writes, despite "Twitter's ongoing efforts to develop and augment its ad products, some marketers say they remain unconvinced that ads on the network can actually help grow their businesses." In the same post, Forrester analyst Nate Elliott put it more succinctly, saying, "Twitter seems to have lost its touch with marketers." Twitter ads are uninviting for a number of reasons. Anyone who runs a business Twitter account and has ever done ad campaigns knows that the targeting is unreliable at best, ROI is fleeting, and except when being negative, the user base is largely unresponsive to ads. Can you imagine if businesses running television or radio ads had to listen to a real-time audience response to those ads as they interrupted watching television with the family or listening to music on the porch? It wouldn't be pretty. And it isn't on Twitter.

The average user's Twitter feed is a nonstop cycle of live news shooting down the page at a frenetic pace. Promoted tweets from businesses are an interruption to that, and one that users don't appreciate. Many of the responses to promoted ads are so vitriolic and crude that it's not worth sharing them here, but they do exist and as a business, it makes you think twice about the value of paying for these negative engagements. After the disappointing earnings report release, Kevin Kelleher wrote, "Twitter can have slower ad growth if enough new users are coming, or slow user growth if it's monetizing its users effectively." You just read about the ads, and unfortunately, user growth is stagnant.

Slow User Growth

"Much of [Twitter's] battles have had to do with convincing the markets that it's a sustainable business, as well as a usable product - finding equilibrium," Matthew Panzarino wrote for Tech Crunch in an article looking at the Twitter dilemma.

Twitter has 300 million users, which is quite impressive when considered on its own and clearly shows that it's a usable product. But is it usable for the masses? Twitter also has had over a billion users sign up and leave the social network. So something isn't working. The question becomes whether to cater to the 300 million they already have or go after the billions they don't. In a perfect world, Twitter would figure out how to be profitable while staying true to the concept that got them those 300 million loyal users. However, it's an investor's world. And growth is the word of the day. That brings up the question of how to make Twitter more usable, which taps into one of the company's original mistakes.

Bad Relationship with Developers

If you trace the roots of Twitter's developer problem, you'll end up at the social network's first major developer conference in 2010, Chirp, and the announcement of the company's first-party mobile apps. "The announcement rankled some of the most influential developers in the crowd," Anil Dash wrote for Medium. "These developers were independent coders who now faced the challenge of competing with the very company whose service made their products possible." The motivation for Twitter's decision was simple. Too many users were heading off the social network as a result of third-party apps.

Ben Thompson of Stratechery writes, "The problem was that by definition Twitter had little control over how its content was presented in apps built by 3rd-party developers." That clearly wasn't going to work. By 2012, Twitter had developed new rules of service that stated: "If you are building a Twitter client application that is accessing the home timeline, account settings or direct messages API endpoints (typically used by traditional client applications) or are using our User Streams product, you will need our permission if your application will require more than 100,000 individual user tokens." Twitter was abandoning, or at least limiting, the men and women who allowed the service to flourish.

Since then, Twitter has started trying to shift back to the developer-friendly end of the spectrum, which some regard warily. Programmer Marco Arment wrote, "Twitter will never, and should never, have any credibility with developers again. Enjoy it while it lasts, but be ready for it to disappear at any moment." While that may be an extreme view, the writing in the sand is clear. Twitter better hope that the developers stick around, because they may be the ones best positioned to save the social network as it flounders in a sea of competitors.

Other Social Networks

"Every good media organization knows that the road to traffic leads through Facebook rather than Twitter," Derek Thompson wrote in an interesting article for The Atlantic documenting the amount of traffic Twitter drove to a previous post he wrote. Just like everyone knows that Pinterest is better for converting ecommerce leads. Just like everyone knows that Instagram has happier advertisers. And no one knows what SnapChat does better, but it is well on the way to having more users than Twitter.

Competition is a given in business. But maybe Twitter doesn't need to compete with these other social networks. If Twitter embraces what it and only it can provide, they are offering something that other social network can't. So what does Twitter do best? News. And recognizing that as the answer is key to Twitter determining where they go next.

What's Next?

La da da da da, it's the [feel free to fill in this lyric on your own] D O double G. SNOOP DOGG! Is Snoop a possible solution to Twitter's problem? Maybe.

In the scenario that Snoop's candidacy for CEO of Twitter doesn't work out, what else can Twitter's new leadership do to right the ship? A number of voices have already chimed in with their opinions.

Ben Thompson writes, "Twitter should dramatically increase the number of applications - and thus the number of potential reasons - a potential user might create and maintain an active user account." He goes on to further say that the social network should be "an identity system for the rest of the web that connects people and apps according to interests, not just superficial relationships, and monetizes accordingly." For this to be a reality, Twitter needs to put making amends to developers at the top of their list. Luckily, it seems the work to repair that relationship has already started.

Farhad Manjoo even made the symbolic act of offering his advice in 140 characters in his article for The New York Times, writing, "Focus on live events. People never tire of gabbing about what's going on right now. Twitter could be the best place for that. Do it fast."

Early Twitter investor Chris Sacca added his thoughts in an epic post outlining the direction he believes the company should move in, including these general bullet points:

  1. Make Tweets effortless to enjoy
  2. Make it easier for all to participate
  3. Make each of us on Twitter feel heard and valuable.

While I agree with a lot of points Chris makes in his post, such as embracing "live," creating thematic channels, and save buttons, I would caution against manipulating the newsfeed too much and becoming something that users have much less control over. I believe that Twitter must remember the 300 million happy users that made the social network into the powerhouse it is and embrace the live news characteristic that made us into Twitter fanatics to begin with.

The company seems to recognize that its future is as a news network. Twitter VP of Product Kevin Weil said in interview with Tech Crunch, "The real time signal is still one of the most unique things Twitter has, that nobody else has. That's still critically important to us. You're not seeing Twitter move away from being focused on timely and compelling content."

And the company has a potential ace in the hole. Project Lightning represents a chance to bring the original spirit of Twitter together with a more welcoming, more relevant, and more ad friendly present. In a post for Wired, David Pierce describes Project Lightning as being "the core feature of Twitter going forward: a button in the living center of its mobile app's menu bar, dedicated to providing useful information in real time. Twitter's editorial team (made of real, live humans) will define the big stories of the day, and will package tweets, images, and video to explain what's going on." Embracing what you are. Smart.

Ultimately, Twitter needs to balance the competing interests of a community it already has and the community it is trying to grow. It would seem that Twitter's plan is a combination of all the above suggestions. The company has already started expanding to reach further off their own network. They've inked a deal with Google to put tweets in search results, started making better contact with logged-out users through "Highlights" emails, as well as engaging non-users on other sites that Twitter appears on. They are enacting policies to deal with harassment, trolling, and aggressive users, offering analytics and advice to potential advertising partners, expanding ecommerce, taking advantage of local opportunities, and generally looking to make Twitter a more streamlined experience.

I see promise in the changes they are making and am hopeful that the next CEO will maintain the integrity of Twitter as the company continues to evolve. Hey, if it doesn't work, they can always sell to Google.

Cover Image Credit: Flickr User/Rosaura Ochoa