I love Twitter. And given you’re reading this — an article posted to a tech journalism site about the strategic ambitions of a large public company — you probably love it too, seeing as how the site plays host to vibrant communities celebrating, ridiculing, and dissecting the ecosystems surrounding tech, media, and business.
But you and I are in the minority. According to Pew, only 23 percent of Americans over the age of 18 use Twitter. Facebook, on the other hand, is used by 71 percent of American adults. These stats by themselves don’t necessarily spell disaster for the social network. Facebook has always dwarfed Twitter in size and, moreover, the platforms are fundamentally different — tweeted content reaches far beyond Twitter’s digital properties to travel all over the media landscape, from other websites and apps to national television broadcasts.
What’s perhaps more troubling, however, is that only 36 percent of those Twitter users visit the site daily, compared to Facebook which is visited daily by 70 percent of its users. What’s worse, that number went down a full ten points from 46 percent between 2013 and 2014. Statistics like these run counter to the narrative pushed by many of the platform’s defenders — and Twitter itself — that while it has far fewer users than Facebook these users experience Twitter on a deeper, more engaged level. In fact, that’s the entire argument in support of Twitter’s ad revenue prospects versus other more popular networks — because, frankly, its user growth has been abysmal. Last quarter Twitter added a mere 4 million users to bring its total to 288 million, which has allowed both Instagram and Pinterest — two platforms that as recently as 2012 had fewer users — to surpass it.
This puts Twitter in an unenviable position where not only is it failing to pick up new users, but its existing users have become less engaged. That leaves the company with only one strategy to spurn growth and relevance, at least in the short-term: Providing value to visitors who do not have Twitter accounts. And this thinking has informed the company’s latest baby step toward increased relevance.
Today, the company rolled out a brand new homepage that expands upon the old Twitter.com, which was little more than a sign-up page. The new homepag relegates the login prompt to a small section on the right rail, making room in the middle for links to various interest verticals like “TV Shows & Stars” and “High-End Fashion Labels.” It also features a search bar near the top of the page, and on the left there’s an expanded list of more general verticals like “News” and “Sports.”
When users click on a vertical, they are presented with an automated feed specific to that topic. This is the result of all that “algorithmic-tinkering” with feeds that caused so many power users to flip out. As cooler heads expected, this automation did not invade the accounts of long-time power users, corrupting their raw, painstakingly-curated personal feeds, but are instead designed for new users and non-users only.
This is only the first iteration of Twitter’s new homepage, so I don’t want to jump to judgments too quickly. That said, in their current incarnation these verticals and feeds do not exactly offer much value to non-users. All of the functionalities of Twitter, from retweeting and favoriting to following and replying, are missing from this experience, making it most akin to media portals of old like Yahoo and AOL. Meanwhile, the news feeds in particular are too chaotic to function like a clean and useful news aggregator would — and yet the non-users Twitter’s purporting to court here are barred from participating in that chaos, making them even more pointless. The pop culture feeds are even worse — the TV one for example is little more than a list of advertisements for television shows, like a page ripped randomly out of TV Guide.
It’s no surprise that the non-user experience pales in comparison to the Twitter long-time users adore. The question is, is the experience enticing enough to tease the potential of Twitter to new users, to the point where they will have no choice but to sign up? Or will the homepage offer such a bland facsimile of the real thing that visitors will choose to not waste another moment on Twitter.com, abandoning it for either social platforms where they’ve already built a community, or news sites and aggregators that offer a richer interface out-of-the-box?
I fear the answer is the latter. That said, Twitter is notoriously cautious in rolling out big changes and usually does so in many increments as possible, collecting data on user interactions and tweaking the design and functionality accordingly. For that reason, the homepage experience will undoubtedly improve over the coming months.
But Twitter needs to make a choice — does it want the non-logged-in experience of Twitter.com to function as a trial version for the real thing, designed to convince newcomers of the value of starting an account and interacting with the community? Or, does it want to leverage all of the content to create a rich media experience that non-users can obtain value from, regardless of whether they ever sign up for an account?
It’s a tough call: On one hand, Twitter has such a massive amount of content created by celebrities, sports stars, comedians, and pundits that it would be foolish to withhold all that from people who never take the leap to sign up for an account. On the other, consumers have grown less and less interested in passive, centralized information hubs like news homepages, and what makes Twitter so truly valuable is its ability to engage with all that content. And with Facebook and Snapchat both making inroads in hosting news content directly within their apps, that makes the “Twitter-as-news-portal” identity even less valuable.
Finally, part of what makes Twitter uniquely appealing to advertisers is the data the company collects from users who sign up and start tweeting. And while these passive non-accountholders may technically increase the amount of visitors to the site, the company will never catch up to Facebook in terms of site traffic, and thus can’t win over advertisers with sheer numbers. Instead, it needs to instead pull maximum value from each visitor — and that means encouraging them to sign up and tweet.
Maybe Twitter could strike a balance by offering a few “Guest” capabilities to non-account-holders. This would allow any visitor to favorite, retweet, and follow without signing up, saving this information in the user’s browser’s cache. That data would die as soon as the browser cache was cleared, but it would give newcomers a feel for how the site works — and hopefully spark the kind of addictive behavior necessary to forge a relationship between site and user.
The new Twitter.com is undoubtedly an improvement over the old login splash page that greeted new users. But the site will need to offer much greater value than it does today if the company wants to convince users to come back for more, let alone sign up for a new account.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]