Twitter Changes in 2014: 5 Strategic Cautions

Summary: Recent and forthcoming Twitter changes may serve the company’s short-term interests, but they may not lay the best foundation for long-term success. This post offers five strategic cautions that remind Twitter to think of itself as a utility rather than a novelty, capitalize on its unique strengths, minimize existing prejudices and points of resistance, and be welcoming to the broadest range of potential users possible. Additional insights are welcome. (from the Denovati SMART Blog)

Twitter has recently updated their About and Discover pages and created new pages for businesses, the media, and developers. These changes, along with others (see Twitter: What to Expect in 2014, for example), provide strong indications of Twitter’s strategic priorities and focus for the year ahead. Are they on the right track? I’m certainly not in a position to question how they run their business, but I would like to offer five strategic cautions. Specifically, if they want to achieve their user growth and advertising revenue targets – not just in the short term but over the long haul – they would be well served to…

Emphasize Twitter’s Value as a Utility rather than a Novelty

This is an issue I’ve had with Facebook for years. Like Facebook, Twitter should be emphasizing their value as a utility, not a novelty. Compare these definitions from Merriam Webster:

  • Utility: the quality or state of being useful; a service… that is provided to the public; fitness for some purpose or worth to some end; something useful or designed for use
  • Novelty: something unusual and entertaining that is popular for a short period of time; something… that provides often fleeting amusement

Like electricity, phone service, postal service, the internet itself and even email, the goal should be to create something that is fully integrated into the daily lives of the largest and broadest range of people possible, and to make it something they don’t feel like they can live without (even when it makes them crazy).

Put in other relationship terms, Twitter should be looking for lifelong commitments from its users, not one-night stands and short-term affairs.

Novelty wears off, shiny pennies fade, passionate affairs burn out, honeymoons end. Twitter has the potential to outlast many of its so-called competitors. Rather than emulating them, it should strive to outlast them by making a long-term play.

Frame Twitter as an Information Network rather than a Social Network

Twitter used to position itself very clearly as an information network, as evidenced by this statement on their old About page:

Twitter is a real-time information network that connects you to the latest stories, ideas, opinions and news about what you find interesting. Simply find the accounts you find most compelling and follow the conversations.

Although many people may not understand the information vs. social network distinction, it is a critical aspect of what has made Twitter unique. Yes, there has always been a social component to Twitter, but unlike platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and SnapChat, that component is optional. It’s also important to remember that tweets are generally public, shared with a wider world rather than a particular circle of friends or acquaintances. And if we think about situations where Twitter’s value has been most evident, it has been situations where people were sharing information and perceptions about widely-discussed events and crises. In other words, Twitter is like the public square, whereas other platforms are more equivalent to block parties, house parties, and slumber parties.

The idea of information discovery and tracking publicly-shared exchanges should remain a top priority for Twitter. Which leads me to my next caution…

Emphasize Twitter’s Value as a Listening Channel

Twitter’s new focus seems to emphasize content creation and sharing rather than consumption. But as noted by the statement above from their old About page, as well as the quote below, they used to recognize and respect the value of passive engagement much more.

You don’t have to build a web page to surf the web, and you don’t have to tweet to enjoy Twitter. Whether you tweet 100 times a day or never, you still have access to the voices and information surrounding all that interests you. You can contribute, or just listen in and retrieve up-to-the-second information. Visit fly.twitter.com [no longer active] to learn more about what’s yours to discover.

The value of listening was even emphasized in the What is Twitter? video they created a few months ago, so this shift in focus is very recent. There are at least three reasons I find it curious and a bit disconcerting:

  • People are already overwhelmed by information overload and cyber-cacaphonies. We need less quantity, more quality. Shouldn’t Twitter emphasize the latter rather than the former? Especially since…
  • One of the biggest criticisms of Twitter is that it’s full of trite banalities, with a lousy signal-noise ratio. Given that, why would Twitter want to encourage more people to talk?
  • Twitter’s goal of increasing revenue through advertising would be better met if fewer people were tweeting rather than more. Why would businesses want to advertise on a channel on which they have so much competition?

Taken together, the first three cautions lead to my next caution…

Strive to Appeal to Older Users and Later, Reluctant Adopters

In addition to generating more advertising revenue, Twitter is more likely to achieve sustainable user growth by letting people be passive subscribers rather than active engagers. Most later adopters struggle to see the value of having a Twitter account, especially since they have no interest in tweeting themselves. I’ve been trying to break down their resistance by highlighting Twitter’s value as a news and information source and listening channel. If Twitter moves away from that, it will be much harder to convince older individuals (i.e., not teenagers and Millennials) to join and use the platform.

The recent media coverage and commentary over whether teenagers are “abandoning” Facebook is illustrative in this regard. As many people have noted, young people are not significant enough buyers to make them a strategic priority from a user and advertising perspective. Yes, their usage of a platform seems to garner a lot of early attention, but as noted above they are probably not the most reliable long-term user demographic to target.

In other words, Twitter should ultimately aim to be boring, dull, and – omg, that’s what my parents use!

Highlight Twitter’s Value for Professional vs. Personal Purposes

After exploring its new About, Discover, and related pages, it’s clear that Twitter is emphasizing usage by individuals as consumers (in a broad sense) rather than as professionals. Even the information on their Business pages (including those for small businesses, non-profit organizations, and public sector entities) is primarily targeted to businesses that communicate with and market to individuals in the context of their personal lives (i.e., as buyers, donors, volunteers, and citizens).

Although there’s certainly value in that, Twitter should be careful about doing so in a way that seems to deemphasize the importance of individuals and organizations who leverage Twitter for professional purposes (a large and active group with which I am most familiar). Given the preceding cautions, these are two core groups that are worth exploring and exploiting. For B2B enterprises, Twitter can be an invaluable listening, intelligence gathering, benchmarking and business development channel. For individuals, there are huge opportunities to use Twitter as a key component of their career management efforts in terms of professional development, networking, and job search.

There is – and should be – more to Twitter than pop stars, sports figures, consumer brands and reality shows.

Your Thoughts?

Do you share my concerns and cautions about Twitter changes and the strategic direction Twitter seems to be taking? Are there others you would add? I’d love to hear other people’s perspectives on what lies ahead for the Twitter platform and its users.

One final thought on Twitter changes: I believe the option to receive tweets via SMS will disappear before the end of the year. They can’t make money off text messages like they can from the Twitter apps. Let’s see if I’m right…

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Erik G Eitel

I like your post, Courtney. However, I think it’s important to add that there’s a tremendous amount of value both from a brand and personal standpoint in the art of engaging. Sharing information and/or an article is great and provides value, but taking the time to start a conversation and reach out to someone in 140 characters or less is invaluable. Twitter is in fact an information network, but the social aspect of the information network is what, in my mind, makes it that much more useful.

Courtney Shelton Hunt

Thanks for weighing in, Erik. I appreciate your comment, and I think it reflects my general point: we shouldn’t try to pigeonhole Twitter into just one set of applications. You’re absolutely right that for some people there’s tremendous value in integrating the information and social aspects of the platform.

Twitter shouldn’t try to be all things to all people of course, but – to use a clothing analogy – they might be better off trying to be a wardrobe staple that a wide range of people can use in multiple ways rather than a flashy accessory that may only appeal to and work for some.