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It’s Time to Change Twitter’s Market Positioning

It’s interesting to see how market positioning can influence user growth, algorithm, product design, and more. If you’re involved in a product that’s developed for the mass market (say, a social app), this will be quite useful. 

Now, as I mentioned in the title, I’m going to talk about Twitter’s market positioning, why it’s not the best, what could be the new positioning, and how Twitter can start tweaking its product to stay true to the new positioning.

If there’s one thing I’m certain about, Twitter isn’t growing as fast as it should. User growth has been plummeting since 2014. At a glance, it’s easy for you to get convinced that Twitter can’t go further. 

Source: Statista.

From 2017 to 2019, nothing much happened. Twitter sunsetted Vine, did a major overhaul in design (that made it hard to focus on the Timeline), added a couple of features — bookmarking tweets, moments, explore tab, etc. None of them seems to have had a big impact on user growth. 

If you consider Twitter as a social media network, then you need to take a look at this data:

Social Media Users

Source: Statista

That’s the data adjusted for 2020. Of course, it isn’t accurate as some platforms (including Twitter) don’t publish MAUs. But it paints a clear picture. What Twitter has isn’t enough. 

Being a regular user, I believe there’s so much potential buried deep in the product. While I’m no expert, I thought it would be fun to indulge in how Twitter can change its positioning and tweak its design a bit — to unlock the next phase of growth. 

This is likely to be a long post. So, I better get started. 

Timeline

Twitter timeline (the core of the product) — before the introduction of its ranking algorithm — worked in a simple way: Tweets from all the people you follow since your last session (visit) were shown in reverse-chronological order. 

Then, Twitter finally decided to upgrade by introducing ‘Best tweets’ first. 

“When you open Twitter after being away for a while, the Tweets you’re most likely to care about will appear at the top of your timeline – still recent and in reverse chronological order. The rest of the Tweets will be displayed right underneath, also in reverse chronological order, as always.”

Twitter.

The idea is to show you the most relevant tweets that you are likely to find interesting at the top and the Twitter algorithm calculates a relevance score for each and every tweet to pick the best ones for you. The score is based on:

  1. The tweet itself. How is the tweet performing, recency, the presence of media cards. 
  2. Author of the tweet: As you have guessed, your past interaction with the author via his/her tweets, the origin & strength of your connection.
  3. Finally, you: Tweets you found engaging in the past and how often you used Twitter.  

You might think that I’m missing something. I thought so at first. But that’s it. It gathers the tweets from the people who tweeted since you left, scores them based on the engagement, author, and past interactions, and then arranges them in reverse chronological order. 

For a platform with hundreds of millions of users, it’s surprising to see how simple the Timeline algorithm works. Yes, there are a few bells and whistles — “In case you missed it” module that clubs the most relevant tweets, Tweets from your Lists/Topics, etc. But again, they don’t change the Timeline in a noticeable way. 

Just because it’s easy to summarize doesn’t mean it’s easy to execute such an algorithm at scale. And, most importantly, why it’s a problem? Can’t Twitter function with its current algorithm?

No. 

Even after all these years, it’s still hard to find new interesting tweets and accounts to follow on Twitter. Your Timeline doesn’t change much, thanks to the way Twitter algorithm works. Let’s say you follow certain people from the same industry as you are interested in, then your suggestions and Timeline is pretty much filled with the tweets and people from the very same industry. 

“The suggestions are based on several factors, including people you follow and the people they follow.“ 

Twitter

It is up to the readers to find more interesting accounts and conversations.

“When you draw on users’ past habits to shape their future experiences, you risk enclosing them in bubbles of their own making—what Eli Pariser called a “filter bubble”.

Slate.

The friction itself is enough for the new users to not use Twitter. But on top of it, Twitter’s positioning makes it harder to expand its reach. In fact, I believe positioning is the reason for both — the way the algorithm works (adding friction to its users) and Twitter’s declining growth rate.

Market Positioning

Twitter doesn’t position itself as a social network. It calls itself a ‘news network’. Hear it from Jack Dorsey (in a Fast Company interview):

“We’re not a social network as people think about it. I do think we are a news network, and we’re a unique one, because we aggregate all the news media brands into one place, all of the individual voices into one place. And we allow anyone to comment on it in real time.”

It’s what’s happening is what Twitter is about and everything Twitter does is to improve the real-time commentary on what’s happening. For example, take the ‘Best tweets first’ feature. Twitter rolled it out as it saw people using the feature tend to create more live commentary and engage in conversations. 

“We’ve already seen that people who use this new feature tend to Retweet and Tweet more, creating more live commentary and conversations, which is great for everyone.”

And, considering the fact that journalists and leaders (83% of the world’s leaders are on the platform) are active on Twitter, it serves the narrative well.  

“You might find baby pictures from your friends on it, but that’s not the overwhelming majority use case.”

– Jack Dorsey, CEO, Twitter.

And, compared to other social media networks, Twitter is likely to the preferred source for news consumption. 

But the Tides are Changing.

Twitter shouldn’t restrict itself to the news. Rather than calling itself a news network and catering to a specific audience, it’s time to look beyond the real-time commentary and news. And, I have a suggestion as well. 

But let’s understand why it’s time for new use cases. 

1. Declining User Growth: 

Apparently, declining user growth implies that users who are looking to stay on top of the news cycle in real-time aren’t growing in numbers. Most of the news outlets have an app that serves the stories as it happens and yes, people network is something that they don’t have. But guess what, Facebook has both the people and around four in ten US adults get news from Facebook (43%) already. That’s more than YouTube (21%) and uhm, Twitter (12%).  

And, as Twitter expects not all users are participating in a real-time commentary. In the US, just 10% of the users write 80% of the tweets and 500 million people visit the site each month without logging in. 

44% of users never sent a tweet (The data is from 2014, but still eye-opening). 

I’m by no means saying that the appetite for news has gone down but what I’m saying is the majority of the users looking to get news in real-time and stay on top of all the happening have become Twitter users already. Whoever is left has so many places including Facebook and dedicated news and sports apps to get the news from. So, it’s an uphill battle. 

Let’s forget about the yet-to-be-users for a moment. Even just half of the Twitter users seem to use Twitter for news specifically (Just a group of 2500 people surveyed here but I believe the sentiment applies for most of the users on Twitter). 

Well, if you position yourself as a news network and do everything to improve that use case, what do you expect?

And, for those who think positioning Twitter as a news network was a game-changer move: 

Source: Statista

Nope, it wasn’t. 

2. Better Twitter:

And, changing positioning can change the Timeline as well. A better timeline can solve the discoverability problem, reduce friction for the new users, and help us to get rid of the ‘filter bubble’. Twitter can focus its resources towards not making its platform as a ‘news network’ but something more. This means new feature launches and product updates that can have a huge impact on user growth.

In a line, Twitter can improve its product as a whole. Marginal changes aren’t going to result in explosive growth.

Twitter’s New Positioning

Twitter’s new positioning can still be along the lines of conversations. But not limited to newsworthy events. Here’s an example: 

“Be a part of Interesting Conversations.” 

Join twitter. Take part in the conversations that interest you. Share your voice, stand for what’s right, enjoy the fun commentary, and come back so that we change the world through meaningful conversations together. 

Now, let’s see how Twitter can tweak its product to align with this new positioning.

As you know, Twitter introduced Topics and Alternative Timelines recently and both of them go well with the new positioning I suggested. 

Topics:

A user can simply follow the Topics to see and engage with Tweets from that Topic. So far, Twitter claims to have 1700 Topics but the Topics aren’t granular. That being said, Twitter claims to add new Topic almost every week so we can consider ‘Topics’ as a reliable mechanism to help users discover and take part in conversations that interest them. 

Problem: 

Though Topics are great, they don’t have enough spotlight and even the active accounts follow just a handful of Topics. Users have trouble finding the conversations that they want to take part of.

As I mentioned before, the timeline algorithm prioritizes people you directly follow (strength of your connection and past interactions with the author) and the conversations you previously showed interest in. So, less room for you to see tweets from the Topics you’re interested in. 

Alternative Timelines:

First off, Alternative Timelines are great in terms of experience. Swipe to switch to a different, more organized timeline is something that gets users piqued. But ‘Lists’ are basically converted into Timelines here. 

Problem: 

Lists are groups of people (accounts) that you club together based on any common factor (common factor is decided by you, not always by the accounts). For instance, I can group a set of accounts and put them under a List named ‘Reading’. To me, the List is to find interesting articles to read. But accounts can’t just tweet out read-worthy articles just because I put them on a List. 

They are just people like us and they tend to develop new interests and change their tweeting behavior over time. Some might be interested (and so engaged) in a bunch of topics. 

Lists are originally designed to help you find new tweets and accounts to follow. 

“….lists have the potential to be an important new discovery mechanism for great tweets and accounts.”

Twitter

Lists aren’t interests. Topics are. So, what’s the way out? 

Topics as Alternative Timelines

One way to solve this could be having ‘Topics’ as Alternative Timelines, rather than Lists. 

If you think about it solve the problems we’ve discussed above. Topics get more visibility and tweets from a Topic tend to be coherent and TL algorithm can rank it based on the relevance score as usual. So, the most interesting tweets from a Topic appears at the top. 

That way it’s even more organized and easier to find new accounts to follow under a Topic. So Topics are Alternative Timelines. And this way users can take part in conversations on a range of Topics that interests them.  

Lists are people and it’s better to have them under ‘Explore’, sidebar, etc. 

What’s Next?

“In comparison, social networks have to approximate an interest graph using a social graph, with all the problems that come with that.”

Eugene Wei.

While this isn’t an interest graph, it certainly helps Twitter to understand more about users’ interests and better its product over time. What I added here is a first step that can help Twitter to reshape its positioning and increase its market penetration. 

Facebook continually improved its product with the launch of Groups, Pages, Marketplace, and more. Twitter can become more powerful reaching a billion users if it changes its positioning and launches features to stay true to its new market positioning. Once you change what you are for, new ways can open up. If Twitter is shackled to serve its ‘news network’ use case, just getting rid of it can create many possibilities.

By Rasheed Ahamed

I am Rasheed, a startup enthusiast and a growth marketer working with interesting tech cos. I reside and write from Bangalore mostly. Always happy to help, meet, and discuss with like-minded people.

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