Does Twitter Have a Future as a Marketing Medium?

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Longer tweets won't help the network define its place in the social channel or reach critical mass, observers say.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey's blog post this week heralding the end of the 140-character limit on tweets was met with surprise and consternation from most quarters. Isn't the succinct electronic message the thing that defines Twitter? Perhaps, but it does nothing to define what need the network filled for marketers overwhelmed with choices, according to observers.

“Expanding the number of characters is not going to do much. It might add blogs and opinions, but they need something much bigger—a core change,” says Jan Rezab, chairman of Socialbakers, a social media analytics company. “Their problem is critical mass. How do they get more monthly active users? How do they get people to engage with the platform? How can users follow more people? How can they reply?”

3Q Digital CEO David Rodnitzky has problems with Twitter on both personal and professional levels. “I find it really hard to spend more than a few minutes a day on Twitter. It's hard to organize the deluge of data in a way that makes it become part of my daily routine. They need to come up with a user experience that makes it fun and easy to interact with,” he says.

Things like promoted tweets have helped Twitter exist as a brand advertising platform, but flag as direct marketing vehicle, Rodnitzky observes. “Most direct advertisers, who power the majority of Google's and Facebook's revenue, have stayed away. Perhaps Twitter will find a way to create more ROI but, to date, it just isn't a player."

The marketing ROI case for Twitter is hard to make, according to Brad O'Brien, 3Q's Director of Paid Social. “The average daily time spent on Twitter is less than half that of Facebook, and active monthly users are one fifth those of Facebook. Twitter has just not been able to poise itself as a serious driver of performance advertising revenue,” O'Brien remarks.

Brian Solis, Altimeter Group analyst and author of a new book about customer experience called X, says Twitter has an identity problem. “Twitter never outright said what it is to the world. By its own dumb luck, Twitter has thrived with celebrities who get people to follow hashtags. But it lives in a new world now of live video, Snapchat, Facebook M, and Operator,” Solis says. “They have shareholders to report to now.”

Socialbakers' Rezab agrees that what Twitter needs is a revamped user experience, and quick. “I don't know what Dorsey's product skills are. It's too early to say because of the length of development cycles, but I haven't seen the signals of anything taking place—making more acquisitions, introducing new products, making bold new changes to the platform,” he says.

However, social media strategist O'Brien says he's recognized new signs of life issuing from Twitter, such as the deal with Google to put Twitter back in search results and rolling out advertising to logged-out users and visitors without Twitter accounts. “This announcement means another 500 million people a month. That's quite significant, as ads have been for so long reserved to 320 million active users,” O'Brien says.

Solis, who got to know Dorsey and cofounders Evan Williams and Biz Stone during their formative years at Twitter, has faith that the second-time CEO can get the birdie to fly. “Jack is a decisive individual with a clear vision. It was his vision to do the 140 character limit, mimicking MMS, which was hot then,” Solis says. “The first big announcement of a turnaround situation is one that's going to instantly be perceived as a move of desperation. But, in Twitter's case, it's an overdue move toward establishing its purpose in the world.”

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