Does the IPO herald a new dawn for Twitter?
How can Twitter grow to satisfy investors after the IPO? Is change essential, will it foster much-needed engagement or does it come at a cost?
Over the past couple of years I have found myself going in circles when writing about how Twitter might develop; ideas that seemed fanciful wishes might actually become a semblance of reality. In the run up to its IPO, the company is making the news on a regular basis with much of the focus around how it will make money for potential investors, if at all, and whether a new design or functionality may contribute to this.
When the company's S-1 filing revealed that there were only around 50 million monthly US users and that mobile growth seemed to be stagnating (a worrying sign for a "mobile first" company) talk, obviously, turned to growth, where it might come from and how it could be achieved.
Some tech news outlets took to wondering if Twitter would ever become mainstream but, as I wrote before, being mainstream isn't just about the number of users but exposure to data and how engrained into our daily routine a service can become.
Just as when Google+ was accused of being a ghost town, seemingly low monthly active users isn't necessarily cause for alarm just yet (numbers did increase slightly in the latest figures albeit at a reduced rate) but the network does still need to expand its user base and this is indeed a challenge.
As Josh Costine pointed out over at Techcrunch Twitter's very nature could be part of its problem.
I first asked if Twitter needed to change at the beginning of last year and, while it is widely acknowledged that filtering the main Twitter feed would be a bad idea, you have to wonder about other options to both present and consume the data.
It was reported recently that Twitter is working on the next, more visual, revision of the service with new mobile apps to enhance the user experience. Part of this reworking is said to be the removal of the #Discover tab in favour of a more media led main feed. If #discovery is to be removed, how much of its functionality is going to pass to the primary stream?
Part of my original idea for change was iteration of the #Discover tab and for it to become the default view - the main, unaltered feed would still be available. Are we seeing the network take a similar approach but by merging #Discover with the main feed?
I have no doubt that #Discover would have been far more popular if it had not been a secondary view.
Twitter falls victim to contradiction: it knows it needs more engagement, which is why we have the conversation view, but the current appearance is not very engaging. I have previously referred to it as being "awash in a sea of links".
At the risk of repeating myself, there needs to be enhanced discovery to allow people to find interesting content. In this context many tweets would become almost comments on those discovered items - a ready-made conversation starter.
The new @eventparrot account illustrates that although Twitter is already a real-time broadcast network it needs to make better use of the data and actually get it in front of people. By sending notifications of breaking news events via Direct Message you not only engage those who are currently online but also, because many will have either email or SMS alerts set up for DMs, draw people back to Twitter to see what's going on.
The company now also allows you to receive DMs from anyone who follows you without the need to follow them back first. This is opt in (at least for now) and is obviously designed to increase engagement (especially for brands) but could be a double-edged sword as it leaves the door open to increased message spam.
It would appear, however, that Twitter may have tried to preempt this as some are reporting that most links can no longer be included in DMs, although this could be a glitch or the first signs of a complete messaging revamp.
It's in the cards
A new visual approach will make much greater use of Twitter Cards and the network has been sowing these seeds for a while. Things could go further.
If more media is going to be available pre-expanded and visible in the stream then Twitter could work with e partners to provide better text summaries of news items and, maybe, allow more characters.
We are not online 24 hours a day and often miss breaking news (especially in other time zones) so why not utilise cards to summarise key tweets while you were away? Resurfacing popular or breaking content from when users were offline could be a good way of kick-starting a new wave of engagement.
As has been demonstrated time and time again, people are usually terrible at managing their social circles: lists are underused on Twitter, Circles are poorly managed on Google+ etc. To counter this could Twitter benefit from employing Facebook-esque smart lists? Would automatic classification of some of our connections into pre-defined groups help us manage our feed more effectively?
Twitter placed the hashtag firmly in our minds but has since seen its implementation surpassed by the likes of Google+ inserting up to three related hashtags automatically. While Twitter has maintained its simplicity this could have been working against it.
The network could take advantage of the automatic application of related hashtags for enhanced discovery and extend the conversation especially when a tweet is identified as relating to a trending topic.
With an increasing amount of data appearing outside of the body of a tweet can the network start adding meta data of this nature to cards? It was always argued that all data had to be retained as parts of the tweet body because of those using the network via SMS but with the increased prevalence of smartphones running applications capable of displaying this data is it time for Twitter to give in or, at least, offer a two-tier service with available functionality scaling to your method of use?
All will be revealed
Twitter has been trickling out new small features regularly in the run up to IPO no doubt in an attempt to convince the market that it is innovating and has more tricks up its sleeve.
It is unlikely we will see any major changes before the company goes public as there is a danger that drastic action could negatively affect the opening share price. Although this will be a risk at any point post IPO, after the Facebook fiasco, there is a need to make a good initial impression.
Twitter has plenty of options to modify the service in an attempt to increase engagement but it all depends how far it is willing to go without over-complicating the service or alienating existing users.
Has Twitter acquired Summify to aid content discovery?
Competition is hotting up in the social space as Facebook extends the open graph and Google goes all out with Search Plus and is rumoured to have breached the 100 million user mark. While aiming to keep simple is acquiring Summify a way Twitter can compete?
Twitter has a mixed record when it comes to acquisitions:
Summize: Twitter acquired the excellent search company after announcing they were a "perfect match". At the time Twitter said on its blog:
"There is an undeniable need to search, filter, and otherwise interact with the volumes of news and information being transmitted to Twitter every second. We will be adding search and its related features to the core offering of Twitter in the very near future."
Ironically Twitter search has generally gotten worse ever since with the age of tweets you can return being reduced to a matter of days (sometimes even less).
TweetDeck: It is widely accepted that Twitter only bought TweetDeck in order to prevent UberMedia getting hold of it as the company would then have held too strong a position within the Twitter ecosystem. UberMedia was rumoured to being launching its own network and Chime.in (an attempt at an interest-based network) eventually arrived but, without the popular Tweetdeck on board its influence was reduced.
Since acquisition TweetDeck has been reworked to fall more in line with the core Twitter image and functionality which many are unhappy about as they claim Twitter has removed some of the best features.
Tweetie: The popular client for Mac and iPhone, is probably Twitters most visible success story although it was initially greeted with caution from some quarters.
Trendly: Twitter bought Smallthought Systems, the analytics company behind Trendly, and were due to be offering real-time analysis which never seemed to appear.
Twitter acquires Summify
It has now been announced that Twitter has acquired Summify - a service which produces a summary of key news from your social circle and presenting it in a more elegant fashion - just as it was starting to really take off. On the face of it, this seems like another perfect match for Twitter but it remains to be seen exactly how the network with utilise this new resource. Talent acquisition? No doubt. Technology acquisition? Hopefully.
I said in April last year:
"It is widely accepted that Twitter is not for everyone but this may be a limitation of the timeline format. Perhaps it is time for a bit of a shake-up."
That shake-up finally arrived towards the end of last year with the arrival of #newnewtwitter - a complete redesign and unification of the UI across the different means of access - and I stated that "the new view on the #discovery tab would appear to be the first step".
Summify's ability to filter your feed and pull out the salient items would be an ideal way of enhancing the #discover tab by presenting more personalised news based on your own network rather than a generic list from trending topics.
Summify has immediately shut down a number of features including profile pages and the ability to make summaries public (all summaries will now be private until the service stops supplying them) and, obviously, disabling new user registration everyone will hook in directly via Twitter.
Business is business
In a way it is a shame to lose the social elements of Summify but Twitter is out to make itself a better service in order to attract and retain more users.
Summify provides value for many but this value is gained from Twitter's content outside of Twitter's control. It is, therefore, in the network's interest to have this functionality in-house and force us to come to its own site where it can regain that control and serve related "promoted content" based on the topics the summary presents.
The acquisition is another example of Twitter wanting to reassert itself on its ecosystem; it is easier to acquire than to build but make no mistake, if Summify had not sold Twitter would no doubt have further developed #discovery with its solution.
Twitter, living the simple life.
Twitter's new look heralds a change of emphasis and direction but is more a case of the emperors new clothes?
Last week, Twitter came good on the promise to simplify and unify the service by providing a re-imagining of the interface across the various points of access.
The new design incorporates features we have seen before, but sometimes only as part of a restricted test, which aim to improve the flow of information. The concept of specific aspects to the site (Home, Connect, Discover, Me) is obviously designed to help us know which interactions happen where thus making it easier to keep track of our activity.
As I wrote in October, the aim of the redesigned features seemed to target making the interface more consistent:
"the intention is to enable a view from the web that can be more easily replicated on a smaller screen or even within a mobile application thus presenting the same face regardless of how you use the service.
This aim has largely been achieved and can surely be intended, in some part, to negate the need for third-party clients thus increasing Twitter's control over the ecosystem.
It was only a matter of time but the mobile applications have followed the main site in changing the default media upload service to Twitter's own. You are graciously warned of this when upgrading - no doubt to avoid criticisms of options changing without our knowledge or consent - but how many users will actually take the time to change it back to their previously preferred service? This could be a bad time for the likes of TwitPic and yfrog.
As Dave Winer mentions much of the new site is a largely cosmetic affair which re-uses elements from before. He argues that the tech press has been sucked in by Twitter's smoke and mirrors and that none have explained how the new look actually helps and makes life simpler.
I believe we should be looking at the potential and that this is a first step in a new approach linking users to both information and other users. Unifying the points of access creates an element of simplicity in itself; identical behaviour means we are not wasting time on locating features.
With regards to discovery we have shared items presented as stories: social objects (no doubt taken from popular links) which combine the item itself with tweets from relevant users discussing that content - a dual purpose enabling us to widen our scope rather than staying within the safety of our streams.
Back in April I said that it is "widely accepted that Twitter is not for everyone but this may be a limitation of the timeline format. Perhaps it is time for a bit of a shakeup" - the new view on the #discovery tab would appear to be the first step in doing just this. Presenting links as stories also re-emphasises that Twitter is positioning itself as an information network rather than a social one much like how Facebook treats the news feed.
It is quite interesting to see how things have developed over time. Twitter was the original simple status update service, known and referred to by all as a social network; its whole raison d'être was to post tweets. Then something changed.
Twitter decided it was not a social network and, in doing so, recognised the need for easier information discovery by those who only consumed without submitting any tweets of their own.
Ryan Sarver, Director of Platform, stated at the LeWeb conference that #discover will be "one of the main features of Twitter and one of the main areas Twitter as a company will focus on in the next year or so."
At the same time, however, the company is looking at transitioning users from consuming content to actually posting status updates. As I said before, a logged-in tweeting user is of much greater value; just as with any social network, Twitter relies on user-generated content. Currently a small percentage of users generate the lion's share of tweets but, in order to be both more effective and attractive as an advertising platform, the network needs more users actively engaged so that they can be better targeted.
We are, therefore, coming full circle with Twitter needing to get us back in the habit of actually tweeting.
A new approach
By placing an emphasis on content over people Twitter is making moves in a new direction which could encourage users to tweet and I feel that we will see the #discover tab iterate relatively quickly to facilitate this.
As social objects are intended to get us talking one possible avenue would be to give users the opportunity to "have their say". Enabling people to comment on stories rather than reply to individual users or tweets Twitter may be able to kick-start the transition from being just consumers.
Perhaps, by couching tweets as replies to the topic, users may feel more comfortable and willing to contribute.
How far can Twitter travel this path whilst retaining the simplicity it desires?
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Image by d!zzy