Investors want Twitter to grow active users and ad revenue at the same speed as Facebook, so Jack Dorsey has suggested that Twitter could extend its character limit to 10,000 words. But is Facebook the right business model for it to target?
It was Marshall McLuhan who presciently said that the medium is the message. Twitter is often cited as the ultimate example of that maxim: its limit of 140 characters per tweet gave Twitter its character.
Investors seem to agree. Twitter’s share price dipped (again) in response to the news amid questions as to whether that would alienate existing users.
However, as Twitter’s share price has declined 49% in the past year (9 Jan 2014-9 Jan 2015), so Dorsey must risk a further sell off based on short term uncertainty if it will build long term value.
Good strategy builds from existing strengths. The biggest group of Twitter’s verified users (25%) are journalists. I shudder to think what the ratio of public relations (PR) professionals to journalists is on the site… Anyway, any changes should recognise what makes Twitter the most popular network for news makers.
Twitter has appealed to journalists, I feel, because it celebrates good writing, suits the time-poor and has traditionally offered a mine of ill thought out knee-jerk comments that could be used for stories. Twitter’s broader audience have found the same things entertaining.
A business should change its core strategy only when the central assumptions that created it change.
Dorsey argues that Twitter no longer needs to be limited by the boundaries of an SMS (160 characters). More than this though I think it should indeed fear that there are fewer and fewer celebrity exposes and employee slip ups as PR teams (ironically) get better at providing advice about the pitfalls of social media. Twitter executives must also worry about the site’s text based look and feel – as mobile networks get faster people want to share more video and images and, despite buying Periscope, Twitter isn’t great for that.
That said, Twitter is still much better than any other channel as a pure news site, even if it directly generates fewer exposes than in the past.
Much has been made about the threat posed by Apple News, Facebook Instant Articles and Snapchat Discover, but Twitter has a significant differentiator as a news source. Competing news aggregators provide story feeds curated by editors. Twitter delivers the stories shared by the journalists themselves(more than 37,500), and their comments on them.
At its best Twitter provides the original source of a story, a link to reports about it, and the background story from the journalist writing it up. That is addictive (see this example about Justine Sacco from Jon Ronson in the New York Times).
What Twitter has never been great at is making it easy to find such a thread unless everyone helpfully uses the same hashtag in tweets (which they often don’t).
Happily, its new Moments feature starts to do that and should get more time to succeed before the company does anything as radical as increasing its character limit. One thing Twitter should learn from Facebook and Snapchat is that people are wanting shorter and quicker news bites, not longer reads.
Twitter should embrace its position as the social newswire if it wants to build audience faster.
Bloomberg screens, the wire feed most beloved by traders, cost a fortune for something with the look and feel of a BBC microcomputer. Bloomberg even imports tweets, showing the value of them as a news source.
Twitter could learn more from Bloomberg and provide greater analysis tools (free as a competitive advantage).
It also needs to become better at sharing graphics, photos and video.
I’ve written before how social media should ultimately empower journalists to gain a personal following and, thereafter, greater negotiating power with newspapers over wages. It is in the interests of journalists, and Twitter, to focus on making it the platform that really works for the writer and not the publication.
PR people too should continue to champion Twitter as the best site to build an audience for corporate news and directly reach opinion formers (and indirectly via journalists).
By enabling readers to better personalise their news feed, find and analyse interesting stories – whether told by text, graphic or visual – Twitter can gain greater utility, grow active users and increase dwell time.
I am not wholly against changing Twitter’s character limit, but it is important that its executives alter the site in ways that show it understands what Twitter should be. That analysis is missing from Dorsey’s statements.
Twitter can certainly learn from Facebook about how to build successful advertising formats. But if Facebook is the Parish news, Twitter has the potential to democratise the news organisation in a way no other business has done before. That ought to be celebrated and supported.