What Next for Twitter?

Twitter piece authorAs speculation mounts around Twitters future, Ronny Raichura, client director, data & analytics at iProspect, looks at the prospects for the social networking giant. 

There was a time, in the heady days of Google real-time search, that commentators were already calling it “Twittle”. From 2009 to 2011, It seemed like a match made in heaven between microblogging mammoth Twitter and increasingly self-aware search engine, Google.

The two signed pre-nuptials in the form of a content agreement in 2009 which allowed Google to present relevant tweets on its search engine results page until 2011 via a “specially delivered feed” from Twitter. Both parties benefited from the agreement, with Google able to deliver on its promise of more real-time updates and Twitter having the skeleton key to Google’s impenetrably large audience. When the agreement expired, everyone had expected at the very minimum an extension, if not an expansion to the partnership. In reality, Twitter took its ball and went home, the reasons for which were never disclosed, but the bullish response from Google showed that Twitter must have hit a nerve when Twitter turned off the tap.

“Ideally, we would still have a partnership,” Amit Singhal, head of Google search products at the time said. “But we’ve decided in all, we’re OK with the current state of things.” Google Real-time closed its own doors shortly after.

Fast-forward five years, to a world where US presidential candidate Donald Trump is using Twitter as his primary communications platform, and Google has just pulled its hat out of the ring to acquire Twitter. So where, if anywhere, did it go all wrong for Twitter and it’s affectionately named iconic sparrow, Larry?

Unfortunately, an exclusive feature of Twitter is the ease of access that users can exploit to dispense abuse to anyone on the network. In the early days of Twitter, users were excited to learn when their favourite celebrity had joined Twitter as it gave them real-time access to their idols in 140 characters. What it also did was open the floodgates for online trolls to virtually anonymously target their abuse at whoever they wanted to. This is a dichotomy for Twitter in that the anonymous nature and freedom of uncensored speech is what allowed for its rapid growth. The negative press, in the UK in particular, around cyber bullying and the promises from both political parties to stamp down on it, has had a substantial impact on Twitter’s reputation.

Another issue that Twitter has had is adapting to the changing behaviours of its target audience. Since its inception, it had evolved from its almost cult status in 2006 – to 288m active users by the end of 2014. Since then though, monthly active users have somewhat plateaued at just over 300m n Q2 2016. One theory is that the prevalence of ads within users’ Twitter timelines has put existing users off a platform which had developed its cult status following through a perceived anti-establishment stance.

What has magnified this issue is the level at which advertisers can target their prospective audience. One of the things that users liked about Twitter was the relatively small amount of information they needed to divulge to sign up for the platform. Unfortunately for Twitter, this noble position doesn’t sit well in the
world of online marketing, where advertisers expect to target users on a virtually one-to-one level.

Twitter’s age, gender and interest targeting is based on inferred data, leading to a vast array of irrelevant, broad-stroke advertising in the form of promoted tweets, and other more visual formats similar to those seen in Facebook’s news feed.

In order to adapt, Twitter needs to find new ways to use its vast resources away from the somewhat saturated model of static ads within users’ timelines. If the search engine is the database of intentions, then social media is the database of actions, and it is these actions that advertisers are willing to pay the big bucks for. One way that Twitter could look to go is to offer ad packages as part of an extension of large TV spot buying.

Currently, live tweeting during TV shows accounts for a significant amount of total tweets. The Game of Thrones Season 5 finale alone generated 436,000 event-related tweets. Advertisers with ad spots during these large events would relish the ability to extend their campaign on Twitter through some sort of immersive and consistent creative messaging. This is one example of how Twitter has a unique and positive appeal against other social media platforms, in its ability to build real-time social communities tied together through live events.

The challenge remains in how to grow that relatively niche user base during a time of intense competition. In one minute in 2016, there are more than 20m WhatsApp messages, 527,000 Snapchats, 977,000 Tinder swipes, but only 347,000 tweets – wrestling the attention of a digital-obsessed world away from competing platforms is Twitter’s biggest hurdle to future growth.

Ronny Raichura is client director, data & analytics at iProspect