18th January 2016

Jack be Nimble, Jack be Quick – Will New Twitter CEO Make or Break the Social Network?

When Jack Dorsey took over as Twitter’s CEO at the end of last year and promptly slated the performance of his predecessors, it was widely expected that he would take drastic action to turn the social network’s fortunes around.

But even the most ardent proponents of reform could not have expected the latest proposal from the Twitter co-founder – desecrating the sanctity of the 140 character limit by allowing posts of up to 10,000 characters.

For many, such a move could strip the network of its unique appeal and corrode its very essence.

At the same time, however, few would disagree that the stagnant network needs a thorough shake up if it’s to remain relevant in an increasingly crowded and innovative marketplace.

So what can Dorsey do to make sure Twitter doesn’t become the next MySpace? Does it necessitate reinventing it from the rapid-fire, micro-blogging platform we know and love today?

Get active

The whole issue boils down to the relentless race for users. Active users to be more precise.

For investors in community-based platforms like Twitter, monthly active users (MAUs) are a core indicator of growth and potential future value.

As a listed company since late 2013, the trajectory of its active user base is therefore a metric to which Twitter pays particular attention too.

Unfortunately, it is also one which is causing the company major headaches.

And that’s because Twitter’s drive to recruit and hold on to new active members has fundamentally stalled.

Members only

For many people in and around the company, the reason lies with the fact that Twitter has become too much of a members-only club for ‘power users’ – too confusing, lonely and intimidating for casual users.

As Gary Vaynerchuck has stated, “what [has] always struck me [is] how quickly ‘grandma’ understood Facebook and how utterly confused she was with Twitter.”

How big a problem is this? Well, it’s estimated that there are up to an incredible 1bn inactive Twitter accounts, compared to just over 300m active ones – a hugely worrying ratio. Too many people try Twitter, get lost and give up.

So, the answer appears obvious to the Twitter top brass – make things more inclusive and understandable to increase mainstream appeal and user ‘stickiness’. More like Facebook, basically.

In fact, it’s widely regarded that the current leadership regime has become ‘relentlessly fixated’ with comparing Twitter against its mass market rival.

Face off

The Twitter of the future is therefore increasingly taking on a worryingly ‘Facebook-lite’ appearance, as can be seen by a brief inspection of a few recent updates:

  • ‘Favorites’ (sic) have become ‘likes’
  • ‘Moments’ are reshaping feeds around ‘relevancy’ rather than immediacy
  • ‘While you were away’ is serving up popular tweets that infrequent users missed between log-ins

Much to the annoyance of Dorsey, however, these ‘fixes’ have so far failed to deliver the desired surge in MAUs.

Which has led only to a redoubling of efforts. Even more radical ideas, such as 10,000 character-limit posts, are put forward as potential solutions.

Losing faith

The problem, of course, is that 300 million active users already love today’s Twitter for a reason.

Real-time, conversational, fast-paced, witty, topical, challenging – what makes it incomprehensible for some makes it essential to others.

And by ripping the heart out of what gives it so much relevance, purpose and distinctiveness, Twitter’s leadership threatens to alienate loyal users to the point where they eventually lose faith altogether.

Even more ironically, removing the platform’s most iconic points of difference could also be hugely detrimental in encouraging new user sign-ups. After-all, who wants to join a Twitter that’s little more than a second-rate Facebook imitator?

The market certainly understands this very real threat, even if Dorsey doesn’t. Shares closed over 2% down on the day of the 10,000-character proposal (representing a new low).

Tipping point

So how does Dorsey win?

There are broadly three approaches for Twitter moving forward:

  1. Stop actively chasing new users altogether and instead focus completely on maximising the experience of its existing core user base
  2. Aggressively pursue a policy of making as many changes as possible to push Twitter into the ‘mainstream’ (read: more like Facebook)
  3. Take a longer term view of growth. Slowly introduce tweaks and changes that make Twitter a more welcoming, understandable and immersive experience for newbies – whilst carefully protecting its distinct appeal and underlying purpose

In reality, the first option is out of the question. As soon as Twitter went public, it exposed itself to an expectation of continuous growth.

Option two? The whole point of this post has been to explain why it has little merit in the long run.

Which leaves the ‘third way’. Stay the course but be sympathetic to the preferences and behaviours of those new audiences you want to get on board along the way.

Analyst Rich Greenfield sums it up well: “Twitter has focused too hard on trying to be perceived as equivalent in scale/reach to Facebook. Spending…more time building the active, logged-in user experience is a far bigger long-term opportunity.”

Strange that the man who helped create Twitter in the first place can’t see the appeal of staying true to its founding principles. Let’s hope Dorsey sees the light before it’s too late.

By Barry Maginn, Senior B2B Account Manager