Solving Twitter’s On-Boarding Problem

Whenever I speak with people on the subject of Twitter I always pick up interesting perspectives. It seems there several groups of people in respect to Twitter. There are those who are on it, have figured out how to use it, and love it. There are those who are on it, but don’t totally get it, but want to be on it anyway to make sure they don’t miss something. And those who just don’t get it and aren’t on the service. For Twitter addressing these later groups who are on it but not fully engaged or don’t get it is a key strategic initiative.

For the group who is on it but not fully engaged, Twitter must advance what is called the on-boarding process. That is moving someone from signup to engagement as quickly as possible. In a short amount of time if people sign up and find no value they may likely not return or engage with the service. Twitter, in essence, has an on boarding process today that is loaded with friction.

Twitter is like Facebook in some ways and not like it in others. It is like Facebook in that the more people you connect with the more interesting and dynamic your stream becomes. But Twitter is unlike Facebook, in that you can’t have too many friends. Facebook becomes less interesting the larger your social network where Twitter becomes more interesting the larger your network.

I’ve been on Twitter since 2008 and the first few years I didn’t get it. I Didn’t use the service much and didn’t invest much time in it. But over time as I followed more sources I trusted, the more engaged I became. Once I learned that the key to Twitter engagement was to follow as many smart people, or trusted sources, or sources of interest possible, the more engaged I became. I found around that once I started following around 500 sources of interest things got interesting. The challenge for Twitter is that this process takes time. I had to manually follow each source. I discovered most the sources from people I followed re-tweeting smart things from other people who I then decided to follow. So it seems to me, the best way for Twitter to get more engaged customers quickly is to speed up the way in which they can follow large sums of people of interest. Here is what I propose.

Twitter should curate a large number of sources related to topics. For example, they could create a tech news category, finance category, or a cooking category, or a cars category, or a celebrity category, etc. Then curate that list with a large number of sources. This way when I sign up, I choose the categories I am interested in and I am instantly following large groups of people curated to make that category interesting. This way, within a few minutes, I could easily have a list of several hundred people or more that I follow. Which would instantly make my stream more interesting.

This process would at least get the ball rolling and then allow consumers to discover new sources of interest from there. Discovery is a key part of the stickiness of any solution and should not get lost in the on-boarding process. This solution allows the customer to sign up and start following large groups of people without having to follow each by hand. Some people just need help getting a head start and this would do the trick.

Given the broadcast medium Twitter has become and how mainstream media and entertainment are using it there will continue to be interest for new customers. The trick is to make on-boarding as easy as possible and I think this might do the trick.

Facebook’s Conundrum

I used to be very bearish on Facebook. I’d say I’m more skeptically neutral now. Each quarter Facebook has posted significant growth in terms of monthly active users. Yet when we talk to consumers, particularly younger ones primarily in the US, we kept hearing of declining usage. Patrick wrote a great article earlier this year called Facebook is for old people based off things he was hearing from his kids and their friends.

For some time we had been hearing the same with the younger demographic. We did find some interesting related data that even many consumers of all ages who had been on Facebook more than three years noted a decline in their daily usage. So Facebook’s own admission that teen usage on their service is declining came of no surprise.

Before I dive into what I think the conundrum is let’s take a look at their growth as a user base at large then also the growth of mobile users on Facebook.

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 3.30.13 PM

The key to this chart is the growth of mobile active users which is now nearly every active user on Facebook. My hypothesis all along for the steady growth of Facebook’s quarterly increase of monthly active users was that emerging markets were coming online and joining the Facebook revolution. We know that many emerging regions have helped spike the adoption of smartphones very sharply over the past 12-18 months. In these regions many of these consumers do not own PCs so their smartphone was their sole portal to the Internet. In fact it is possible that Facebook itself was one of the primary driving factors for many consumers in these regions to get smartphones in the first place, buy a data plan, and connect with the broader world.

Benedict Evans eloquently stated this in a recent tweet:

iPhone is a tool to sell data plans in the USA. Facebook and Whatsapp are tools to sell data plans in emerging markets

This statement hits the nail on the head as to the growth and sustained active users for Facebook. Interestingly the same is true of Whatsapp which is adding about 50m new registered users per quarter. Another is LINE which has added 100 million active users since January of 2013 and is now currently at 280m users. As the world comes online via their mobile devices they are looking to discover and connect. But what happens three years from now when they are mature users. My suspicion is that these types services which acquire users quickly can also lose them just as quickly.

All of these companies are mobile first companies. Facebook used to be a PC social network and now they are a mobile company first and foremost. This is evidenced by their continual growth of mobile ad revenue. It is truly a mobile world.

Facebook’s Conundrum

Plain and simple, Facebook’s challenge is engagement. Early Facebook users find the joy of discovery and connecting with friends, family, those they lost touch with, etc., as a very sticky experience. Facebook’s on-boarding(initial sign-up and discovery of the service) experience is quite quick and clean because fairly quickly you can start connecting with schools, alumni, friends, family, etc. Within a few hours there is a wealth of active social data available to you.

But overtime, that discovery fades and Facebook becomes more about maintaining than connecting. Checking in and the occasional sharing rather than discovery. The challenge for Facebook is to continue to evolve the service to encourage and maintain engagement even after it moves from the discovery phase. [pullquote]Facebook would be a great service if you un-friended 90% of your friends[/pullquote]

One theory I have is that so many of us grew our friends list so big that the amount of noise vs. genuinely interesting things becomes so overwhelming that stop engaging heavily due to that noise. Someone once told me that Facebook would be a great service if you un-friended 90% of your friends. This is a fantastic point but also one that would come with a cost. The value of having a large network is that the timeline is fresh. The problem with that, to my earlier point, is that most of that is noise..but it is fresh noise! If we were to unfriend most our friends except the ones we are truly close to, the content would most likely be more relevant but it would also not be as frequent. So by nature Facebook would be better, but it may not make it that much more engaging.

Contrast this with Twitter. Twitter is my favorite and easily my most time consumer app of my day. I may actually be on Twitter more than any app including email. Twitter has the opposite problem of Facebook in that the on-boarding is an issue. You sign up for Twitter and it takes a significantly longer amount of time to find relevant folks to follow. And Twitter, unlike Facebook, gets better the more content sources you follow. Once you have curated your own network of hand selected interesting content sources, you find your timeline stays fresh and stays relevant. This is why I spend so much time on Twitter. I have hand selected content sources that I find relevant and interesting. I follow 793 sources and the quality of my timeline is so relevant that I do what I can to not miss any tweets by playing catchup throughout the day. With Twitter taking the time to invest in volume sources makes it better. With Facebook taking the time with volume sources arguably makes it worse.

Twitter may or may not reach mass market status. For me and what I do it is an invaluable resource, network, and communication tool. Facebook is clearly a mass market product but they have a challenge. They may or may not figure this engagement problem out. Perhaps they don’t need to. So long as they continue to find relevant ways to deliver engaging advertising on mobile devices and continue to run a healthy business they should be fine. But they are now a public company and investors are relentless about growth. Engagement is one of the keys to Facebooks growth metrics that investors care about. That is why I remain skeptical.

Text Me, Don’t Call Me

I find it interesting to look at how communication has evolved. In particular to where we are today where with certain generations non-verbal real-time communication has become the majority of interactions. I come across this frequently when I tell people the fastest way to get a response from me is to text me not to call me. I’m not always in a setting where I can answer my phone but I am generally always in a setting where I can answer a text message.

Technology has enabled this new tier of communication. I first started thinking about this new tier when I was studying how millennial’s were using technology in the 2007 timeframe. It was around this time we saw the shift happen with this generation to texting more than they were talking on the phone.

At the time this was a profound observation. This young demographic’s preferred method of communication was text messaging and in many contents it trumped other forms of communication.

Prior to text messaging, instant messaging was the closest thing we had to real-time non-verbal communication but it required you be logged in and at a computing. ((of course morse code was a form of real-time non verbal communication)) Texting delivered on the value of instant messaging but made it possible any-time any where, for a fee of course.

I bring this up because it begs an interesting question. Have we finished innovating on how we communicate? This is essentially one of the primary ways man has used technology. We have used it to our advantage to increase the manner and method in which we communicate. Communicating is a basic human need and nearly every example we have of communication evolving has been directly empowered by technological innovation.

Tiers of Communication

To look deeper at the question of future communication evolution it is helpful to look at the ways in which we communicate. I call these the tiers of communication and I believe there are three of them. Below is a chart I made for a presentation on the subject.

Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 4.11.37 PM

The first tier or communication is a basic verbal conversation, either in person, on the phone, over video conference, etc.

The second tier of communication is like a text message, instant message, or some other form of conversation that takes place non-verbally but is in real-time or near real-time.

The third tier is made up of conversations we have that are non-verbal and not in real time. Email, and snail mail are examples of this form of communication.

What’s fascinating about having different options for communicating is that we can use the medium that best dictates the context of the conversation. For example in an emergency a verbal conversation is necessary. But for a question about a grocery store item a text message would probably suffice.

Text messaging is perhaps one of the most fascinating ways in which our communication styles have advanced. Texting is obviously good for short conversations, but many millennials, for example, will have very long conversations and multiples of them simultaneously in real-time. We have all heard the horror stories of parents finding unusually high cell phone bills due to kids texting more than 10,000 texts in a month. That’s some dedication to this new form of communication.

Interestingly social media like Facebook and Twitter contain multiple elements of these tiers. On Facebook I can post something with no real time sensitive purpose or even something requiring no response at all. I can also have a real-time conversation with someone via Facebook chat. I can send a message and even have a voice conversation.

Similarly Twitter gives me many ways of using the tiers of communication, minus verbal for now. Twitter is actually interesting to me and many in my close circle. Since many of us are bearish on Facebook, we have made time investments in Twitter. Because of how I use Twitter, it is nearly as good as text messaging if one wants to communicate with me.

My guess is that technology is not done advancing how we communicate. My conviction is that the tiers I outline above will stay the same, however, technology may enable new ways of engaging in them not possible today.

Maybe it will be the TV, or wearable devices which will enable new ways to communicate. One thing, however, is highly likely. The millennial generation that embraced new technologies and adopted them into their communication methods, will be the generation that brings us the next major innovation in communication.

How Twitter is Evolving

Credit @Jack
As an analyst I am not entirely focused on social media as a primary area of my market focus. But because I study consumer markets holistically it is something I observe with a watchful eye. I was fortunate enough to be able to have candid conversations with many of Twitters earliest investors which has helped me shape my opinion on the platform thus far. And from my view, it has been fascinating to watch Twitter evolve and get to the point today where it is basically embedded into society.

Narcissistic Roots
I have always rejected the notion that the roots of Twitter appealed to people’s inherent narcissism. In fact, I was on a panel many years ago with author Andrew Keen and we heavily debated this topic. Many of Andrew’s books like The Cult of the Amateur are very strict critiques of the negative effects of things like blogging, the internet, and other key technologies on societies. Andrew makes many good points that are food for thought but I largely disagree with the premise that Twitter at its roots is only for those who love the spotlight.

When Twitter was first starting out I was adamant in my analysis of the service that it presented a valuable platform for those who are in the public eye. Folks like celebrities, athletes, political leaders, the media, etc., and that I questioned what an everyday mass market consumer would get from “tweeting.” My thought initially was that the value to the mass market the value would be in consuming tweets rather than actually “tweeting.”

I point out the value of consuming tweets in my column Why I love Twitter. My main point being one of the many ways I use Twitter is as a information filter of many of the key industry sources I follow for work. Twitter’s value as a real-time filter for real-time information is a key value proposition.

Although, now that we have seen Twitter begin its ascent into the mass market, it is becoming clear that Twitter is evolving into a conversation in a fascinating way.

Next Generation Communication
I am convinced that Twitter is no longer a platform to broadcast and has evolved into a platform to communicate. Of course broadcasting can be communicating but it is generally one way. Twitter has now become a two way dialogue with those broadcasting and others interacting.

It is interesting to see how the aforementioned public figures I spoke of are using and embracing Twitter to interact with the masses. Many folks we speak with who joined Twitter simply to follow celebrities, athletes, or media personalities, found that the bulk of their Tweeting was less about saying what is on their mind and more about interacting with those they follow. Perhaps even more interestingly the large majority of those we spoke with received a tweet back or re-tweet of a public figure they follow.

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I follow Justin Bieber on Twitter. I do it because I am intrigued with how he uses Twitter (a story you can choose to believe or not.) But I am genuinely surprised at how active @JustinBieber is on Twitter and how often he interacts with his fans. Not only is he encouraging his brand loyalty amongst his fans but he has a instant communication channel with them for anything he chooses–personal or professional.

This is one example of many that shows how Twitter has evolved from broadcasting platform to a true two way communication platform. I believe Twitter will may play a key role in further changing communications as we know it.

Even simply looking at how many broadcast outfits are using Twitter around the Olympics demonstrates my point. Many networks covering the Olympics are not only encouraging Twitter interaction but also tracking and sharing key statistics around how its being used. Many athletes as well are using Twitter (some not too intelligently) to engage with their fan base.

Twitter truly had humble beginnings. And Gripe as some may about how it has evolved, it has added to the evolving use of technology in the ways we has humans communicate and interact. And I believe we are still only scratching the surface of its possibilities.

Why I Love Twitter

I don’t expect everyone to love twitter. In fact I anticipate that many have mixed feelings about the service. Twitter is one of those things that I believe works great for some people but not everyone. And in a world of consumer choice that is perfectly fine. I would not expect a piece of technology, service, product, etc., to become universal.

I, however, particularly love the service. It works for me within the context of my career as well as how I prefer to consume information. I don’t think my appreciation of the service hit me until it went down for nearly two hours this past week. Twitter has become my source for real time information about a range of different things. I follow sports writers of my favorite teams for real time updates about games. I follow certain news outlets for updates on the news in real time. I follow a range of technology industry colleagues and journalists for real time updates on the technology landscape.

This point of real time information became clear when Twitter went down. Since Twitter is where I get all my real time information, my first instinct when I couldn’t access Twitter was to try and go to my Twitter feed to see if it was down. I eventually had to actually go visit a technology blog in order to confirm if Twitter was down. Twitter is my source for information to as close to real time as I can imagine.

Before I was a heavy Twitter user, which only happened in the last year, I used to frequent the home pages of all the big tech blogs several times a day at a minimum. This process for me was how I tried to stay up to date with the most recent pulse of the tech industry and other related news. But most technology blogs and news websites contain way more information than I am interested in and I found that I wasted quite a bit of time trying to find information that was useful to me. This is where Twitter comes in.

Twitter has become for me my curated information filter between me and the world wide web. I have carefully selected who I follow and built specific lists in order to make sure I am only presented with information from sources I trust or find the most beneficial. Twitter is acting as my aggregator for the information I have chosen is the most important for me. When I end up going to a website it is always the individual article promoted by a source I trust from Twitter. I rarely go to news sites home pages any more and I am quite pleased by this. In fact I have learned most of the major breaking news from the past six month’s via Twitter.

Of course I still use the web for a range of different things but when it comes to news, especially related to tech, Twitter is the door between me and their websites. I am sure this is true for a wide variety of folks and perhaps even readers of this article. Maybe you were referred to from a tweet or a retweet of a trusted source. Perhaps you came from another source of curated content. Either way it is more likely you got to our site and this article from another means than the homepage.

When Twitter is used this way it can be quite a useful tool for saving time. I don’t find myself needing to frequent blogs or news sites home pages in order to get caught up with what is happening in my industry. As long as I have checked Twitter in the past few hours I am completely caught up. Checking Twitter takes a matter of minutes to catch up where going to four or more blogs or news sites could take upwards of ten minutes to accomplish the same thing.

I am not sure what this means long term for the news media websites if Twitter is one of many useful aggregators to come. On this point we came across an internal research report that had caught wind of groups of Twitter users only using the service to consume useful media not to actually tweet anything. I don’t have enough data to proclaim that a trend yet but in light of my point it is an interesting development.

All of this brings up an interesting question to Twitter’s long term business model. After the outage I become convinced that I would pay a fee to use Twitter due to the value it brings to me in my daily work flow. Maybe I would pay just to keep it ad free but if it was a matter of not having it or paying to have it, I would choose to pay for it every time.

Maybe Twitter will add more value to their service for people like me and charge for premium features. Maybe they won’t and will keep the whole service free but allow ads, however, I hope this is not the route they choose.

Whatever the case of a business model, Twitter has become embedded into my work flow. I find Twitter as a valuable resource for curated information. Twitter may not be for everyone but it definitely is for me.

Why Silicon Valley Needs a New Name

I was visiting with one of Silicon Valley’s bright thinkers last week, Kanwar Chandra the CMO of CSR and founder of Sirf, and he told me that Silicon Valley is really no longer Silicon Valley. In fact, he said it needs a new name. He went on to say that Silicon Valley has really become the Valley of platforms.

He astutely pointed out that it is the center of mobile and wireless development platforms with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platform driving major growth around the world. And with Intel jumping on the low voltage processor bandwagon, along with the many Valley companies building IP around ARM cores, it is also the center of platform development in mobile related processors for companies to build next generation mobile devices. The company he founded, Sirf, is the leader in GPS processing and much of the GPS and mapping platforms are being driven by Sirf and other companies in the Valley related to location based hardware and software.

It is now the center of activity in social networking with Twitter and Facebook leading the way with their various platforms that people can develop on. eBay and Craigslist were created to be major platforms for driving eCommerce and both companies are based in the Silicon Valley region. The Bay Area has also been at the heart of BioTech thanks to the pioneering work of Genentech and work at Stanford and UC Berkeley along with many Valley based biotech firms. The Valley’s VC’s are backing start-ups in green energy here in Silicon Valley in a big way that suggests that the Valley will become a hotspot for alternative energy platforms too.

Companies in the Valley are also leading most of the major cloud based projects and initiatives with and Oracle’s Web based apps providing critical platforms for enterprise. And we will soon see the introduction of Apple’s iCloud and I am willing to bet that they will define how the consumers see and understand what the cloud is all about.

More importantly, Apple’s iCloud will become a major platform for innovation. And of course, Google’s cloud programs are already a big hit and as they make their cloud based business tools more robust and take on Microsoft with their cloud initiatives from an Open Source approach, they too will provide a major cloud based platform for business and consumers.

This shift from silicon being at the center of the Valley’s tech existence to one of platforms driving its future growth is actually quite significant and one that needs to be recognized. To frame our region as just Silicon Valley these days does it an injustice.

But here is the problem. If we see the Valley’s reason-to-exist moving from Silicon to platforms, what do we call it? Silicon Platform Valley does not roll off the tip of the tongue. Or perhaps Technology Platform Valley is the right name. Or how about Silicon Valley now Platform Valley? OK I admit that I am very bad at naming things.

So, I need your help.

If Silicon Valley has evolved beyond its core technology and is now becoming the center for broad technology platforms, is there a better name for it then Silicon Valley? I know the tendency will be to just leave it as it is, but somehow I sense we need to grab hold of this idea of it being the center of new and innovative platforms and embrace it wholeheartedly.

So, while the chance of actually changing its name is remote, I am still open to any good names you can come up with that perhaps we can push behind the scenes and at least get people seeing Silicon Valley for more then being just the center of the universe for silicon based chips.

Your comments and name suggestions are appreciated.

If you feel obliged please comment below or feel free to send me electronic mail at