With Dick Costolo leaving Twitter, it’s a good time to think about what’s next for the company and its service. Twitter is one of the companies I’ve followed most closely over the last couple of years and I’ve been continually surprised by the inability of the company’s management to move faster in making the changes the company needs to move forward. As Chris Sacca’s recent letter indicated, there are plenty of people who have opinions on what the company should do but, for some reason, Twitter’s management either hasn’t seen what needs doing or has been unable to execute on an appropriate vision for the company. At the risk of adding another voice to the chorus telling Twitter’s next permanent CEO what to do, here’s a list of four things I think Twitter needs to turn things around.
Protect the current core experience
If there’s one thing Twitter should have learned from all its various experiments over the last couple of years, and even with the rumors of more changes to come, it’s there’s a significant group of hardcore Twitter users (including many of its most active and vocal users) who very much like most of the current experience on the service. That includes important features such as the ability to see one’s timeline live and unfiltered, the exclusion of non-followed individuals and their tweets from that timeline, the ability to use third-party clients which add either functionality or usability to the experience provided by the company’s own clients, and so on. Although I’m going to recommend several significant changes below, the company should make those changes by adding to – rather than replacing – the current Twitter experience, for those who want to keep it. One of the most worrying signs of the last couple of years has been a willingness to break this core experience for those who currently use Twitter most and Twitter needs to be very careful to avoid doing this. Because these users will provide a great deal of the value the service will provide to the next few hundred million users.
Move away from the focus on following accounts
Although rule number one should be not breaking the core experience for existing users, the second most important thing Twitter needs to do is actually break this experience for new users. Though Twitter’s current user base is enormously important to its future and it needs to retain these super users, Twitter does need to make significant changes to the product, starting with the on-boarding experience. I’ve written about this a little before, and Twitter has started to tinker with the model but it hasn’t gone far enough. The biggest problem Twitter has is it’s still built around the process of following and seeing tweets from single user accounts. Even though Twitter has improved the sign up process by asking about a user’s interests first, that interest selection still leads to a screen that’s account-centric:
How these particular accounts are chosen to match the interests I selected is another important question, but one we’ll leave for now. But, as you can see, I’m still being asked to follow individual accounts. If I’m entirely unfamiliar with how Twitter works, this is immediately intimidating and raises off-putting questions. What does following these accounts mean? If I follow a brand, will they start spamming me? Will my friends see I’m following these accounts? Where are my friends? And so on. The reality is, Twitter needs a topic model and not one that’s still composed of individual accounts but one that’s truly topic driven and independent of accounts. I should be able to pick favorite sports teams and, instead of being directed to that team’s account, be able to say I want to have the most relevant tweets on the topic of my team as a “channel” I can tune to whenever I’m interested. Users need to be able to follow multiple topics in this way, keeping them separate and tuning into one or all of them at any given time as they wish.
Go beyond the 140 characters
Before anyone thinks I’m proposing lengthening the character limit of tweets, that’s not at all what I’m proposing. What I am saying is Twitter needs to finally pulls the trigger on some of the things it’s been reported to be working on for some time. That includes moving some things currently within the 140 characters limit outside of them. I’m thinking principally of usernames, hashtags and the like – things that have become part of the Twitter vernacular but are both intimidating to new users and character-consuming. I almost never use hashtags both because I don’t like the clutter but also because they eat into my 140 characters. It’s often hard enough to communicate a nuanced thought in less space than a classic text message without having to trim down my message even further to squeeze in a hashtag. And yet, hashtags can theoretically be incredibly useful because they identify individual tweets with the topics I talked about above. The same applies to usernames, especially once you get four or five people on a reply-all thread. But both hashtags and usernames are really in the nature of metadata, not the payload and, as such, could usefully move out of the body of the message and into a secondary slot, freeing up characters and making them more useful in the process. Twitter has been talking about this for months but, for some reason, has been reluctant to move forward. Tags and usernames clearly separated from the tweets themselves and marked as such would be much less intimidating for new users and would free up valuable characters for old hands and newbies alike.
Get logged-out users to sign up and log in
Twitter has been talking about its base of logged out users – the hundreds of millions who visit the site each month but don’t log in – and there’s some logic to that. The base of people interacting with Twitter is far larger than those who actively sign in and Twitter wants its investors and others to begin taking that into consideration. But there are three problems with this approach: first, it’s much harder for Twitter to create a meaningful experience for these users when they don’t sign in; second, it’s harder to monetize them because these users are harder to track; and third, it suggests these users aren’t seeing enough value in the service to bother signing up and logging in. Twitter needs to do the things I outlined above (and more) to make the service more attractive but it also needs to continue to give logged out users reasons to engage with the service more fully. For example, when inviting logged out users to select topics of interest, it should be inviting them to sign up or log in to save these preferences and interests for next time. The interest options made available to logged-out users also aren’t granular enough – though there’s a subtle call to action on the right side to ask these users to sign in and create personalized timelines, it’s not clear enough what that means, or how it might be better. Twitter can do this much more effectively than it currently does.
Moving faster and further is key
This list could go on and on, but I’ll stop with those four key actions. The real key is for Twitter to begin to move faster and further than it has been. There have been signs of an increasing sense of urgency over the past year but, even then, Twitter hasn’t done some of the things it’s been talking about for a long time. It feels like Twitter could learn some lessons from Facebook, which evolved its motto not long ago from “move fast and break things” to “move fast with stable infrastructure”. The new motto isn’t nearly as counterculture as the old one, but it preserves the first half of the phrase: “move fast”. Twitter is growing too slowly and facing too much heavy criticism to continue to move at its present glacial pace. It needs to move faster and demonstrate it’s willing to shake things up in pursuit of getting back to real growth. As long as it avoids breaking the experience for core existing users, it should feel free to experiment and innovate with new features and new ways of interacting for the new users it’s going to need to attract to get as big as it clearly wants to be.