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Twitter at 10: Prodigy or Problem Child?


Twitter, ten years old today, has earned a seat at the top table of digital media. But exactly where it sits for marketers remains somewhat uncertain, writes Peter Houston.

Peter Houston

Twitter turned 10 last month, no mean feat in a world where the shelf-life of a social media network can be measured in days not decades. With around 300 million active users, Twitter has earned a seat at the top table of digital media, but exactly where it sits for marketers remains somewhat uncertain.

If Facebook is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, everyone’s favourite micro-blogging platform sometimes seems like a frantic little bird flapping round the big beast’s head, bumping into the furniture, increasingly desperate to find somewhere to settle.

In a Chicago Tribune article written ahead of the 10th anniversary, Phil Rosenthal said that, ‘The people running Twitter have never quite known what it was and what it could become, treating it as both prodigy and problem child.’

Twitter’s success lies in 140-character utility. ‘The need to compress each tweet makes it hard, beautiful and worth something, almost like coal squeezed into a diamond,’ writes Rosenthal.

The brevity of communications on the network and its overwhelming reliance on real-time chronological display order have given the platform an immediacy that has made it an incredibly powerful medium for news.

“It is the easiest way to see what’s happening in the world right now,” Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey told Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today last week. “It breaks news for so many people.”

A recent survey by the American Press Institute supports Dorsey’s take on the platform. Late in 2015 it reported that, in a survey of almost 5,000 social media users found that Twitter users tend to be heavier news consumers, with 74 percent using it as a news source daily and 70 percent using it to follow a story in real-time in the previous month. From earthquakes to rock star deaths, Twitter is the place became the place people find things out first.

Asked by Lauer if Twitter would be around for its 15th birthday, Dorsey said ‘Absolutely, we’ll he here on the 20th, we’ll be here on the 30th. It’s a fundamental service”.

The bratty 10 year old

As a journalist, I agree with @Jack. I find Twitter all but essential as a place to find, follow and sometimes break news. The platform could even be developing a role as the digital platform of record with politicians regularly using their Twitter accounts to make policy statements or comment on failings in the policies of others.

Unfortunately, it’s also a place where a very vocal minority find it very easy to shoot their mouths off. Even forgetting the Trolls, who’s sole ambition is to intimidate, bully and harass people they somehow identify as different from themselves, the Twittersphere is always ready to respond.

It’s just so incredibly easy for people to post and share words, pictures, videos and links on Twitter. It’s an almost frictionless distribution network and that is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness for marketers because it’s every bit as easy to write or share a snarky, or worse, comment, as it is to write or share a ringing endorsement.

Take the recent case of Beyonce and Red Lobster, sparked by the release of the song ‘Formation’ that seems to recommend rewarding stellar sexual performance with a visit to the seafood chain. Red Lobster was slammed for taking 8 hours to respond to the edgy endorsement and then again when it came back with a lacklustre cheese-biscuit related tweet.

When the chain finally did get its act together, even producing ‘Lobsterworthy’ T-Shirts for customers, it found itself facing a threatened boycott from people believing they supported a perceived anti-police, anti-America theme in the video for the song.

Where does it explain how to deal with that in anyone’s brand manual? In the ‘Rock & Hard Place’ section? * Don’t feel too sorry for Red Lobster, sales are up 33 percent.

A marketing friendly environment?

So the child prodigy has a difficult side. Well so does most social media: Give the people a voice and a few are going to scream and shout like obnoxious kids.

But Twitter has bigger problems than the bad behaviour of some of its users. Other sites, Facebook in particular are seen as more marketing friendly environments. As Rosenthal says of Facebook, ‘You never quite forget it's looking back, managing your feed, managing you, steering you to things and away from others.’

Shareholders don’t like that, or the fact that other social sites – seen as easier for newcomers to get to grips with – are more popular and growing fast at a time when Twitter’s numbers are actually down. Since the network went public in 2013 it’s been a bumpy ride for investors – the share price has rarely been above its listing price of $26 and dropped dramatically in February on the news of falling numbers.

Pressure from investors to ignite growth has led Twitter to make changes that while they may make the service more attractive to more people, hardcore users don’t really appreciate. From the curated ‘Moments’ feed to rumours that the 140 character limit could be dropped, every commercially focused innovation is greeted with howls of complaint.

Demonstrating the depth of feeling, users embraced the hashtag #RIPTwitter on suggestions that a ‘Facebook’ style algorithm could replace real-time tweets. Twitter eventually made it clear that users could choose how they wanted to order their own tweets, but the strength of feeling demonstrates just how difficult it is for bosses to make changes designed to make monetisation easier.

Don’t write the little bird off just yet

There has been a fair amount of media speculation about the impending death of Twitter, but it’s far from done. It has $3.5 billion cash in hand and is likely to generate $2.95bn in total ad revenue worldwide in 2016, a 9 percent share total social media advertising.

As a marketer, I would approach Twitter as a discovery platform, a place to let the world know what is going on with my business and my products. As a community forum, a place of conversation between customer and brand, I’m not so sure. I think there are better, less chaotic venues to host that conversation.

But as a place where people can find news about your products or business and click through to find out more, it has value. Of those following real time news stories in the API survey, 80 percent followed the story straight from their own timeline, with a higher than average percentage clicking through for more information, searching on related hashtags or sharing.

That is powerful and if Twitter can figure out how to monetize it, then it might just make its second decade. Failing that, maybe we need to somehow make it into a public service.

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