The recent troubles at Twitter, culminating in the announced departure of CEO Dick Costolo has occasioned all manner of postmortems and punditry as to “what went wrong” and what should be done now to fix it. Most of the suggestions have focused on fixing Twitter’s dreadful UI and discovery tools to make it easier for ordinary web surfers to use, and figuring out how to better measure ROI for marketers.
All of those things could help. But they’re also premised on the idea that the key to success for Twitter is to behave more like Facebook: expand its user base, increase user engagement, then sell that engagement to marketers looking to target consumers based on their interests.
That would be a reasonable strategy — and in fact has largely been Twitter’s strategy — were Twitter really suited to competing with Facebook. But it’s not, and shouldn’t try to be — or shouldn’t only try to be.
In contrast with Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, Twitter is far-less about its users than it is about the information they exchange there. Like many Twitter users, I suspect, I follow and am followed (under @ConcurrentMedia) by hundreds of people whom I’ve never met and probably never will. We are not “friends” in real sense, or even in the attenuated Facebook sense. We follow each other because we find the information we provide each other useful in some way.
Many of Twitter’s most compelling use cases, in fact, involve practical business functions more than social networking. It’s a cliche, for instance, that Twitter receives outsize attention from the media because journalists are among its most avid users. But there’s a reason for that. Twitter is a very useful tool for journalists. We use it develop stories, to find sources, pick up leads and sniff out shifts in the zeitgeist.
According to Socialbakers’ Q1 2015 Customer Care survey, to cite another recent example, customers asked brands 6.5 million questions in the quarter via Twitter, compared to only 1.4 million via Facebook. Smart brands understand Twitter’s value as a real-time customer relations management tool. It’s even been used effectively for intelligence gathering.
Yet Twitter has never really made a concerted effort to turn that value into a business for itself. Apart from providing data to third parties, Twitter has never developed a coherent business-to-business strategy, despite it’s obvious utility. It has never developed “pro” tools for journalists to help them do their jobs better, it doesn’t sell enhanced analytics products to CRM departments, there’s no Twitter for Enterprise. even though many enterprises make extensive use of Twitter.
Enterprise and B2B tools would probably never be a big enough business by themselves to sustain Twitter. But they could certainly help, and they would at least be based on what the platform is really good at.
It’s ironic, then, to see Twitter finally starting to look in that direction just as Costolo is turning in the keys to the corner office. The recently disclosed Project Lightning, launching later this year, is designed to make it easier for users to follow events on Twitter, in real time, rather than simply following people. According to reports, Lighting will add a new button to the Twitter app that, when tapped, will surface eight or 10 feeds focused on a breaking or developing event. Unlike the standard, reverse-chronological Twitter feed, however, tweets in Lightning will be surfaced one at a time, generally including an image or auto-play video. Critically, tweets in Lightning will not be chosen by algorithm, or based strictly on a hashtag, but by human curators to be hired by Twitter.
There is no word yet on whether or how Twitter will try to monetize Lightning feeds. But it’s not hard to imagine news organizations being anxious to have their own event feeds, curated by their own editors, included on the platform. Nor is it hard to imagine them being willing to pay for the privilege if they could wrap it around their own marketing or monetization elements.
Twitter has also recently begun testing new product pages. The pages include tweets about a product, user reviews, information on pricing, and in some cases, a “buy” button that will allow users to purchase the item directly through the app.
Twitter’s recent B2B moves, moreover, may be part of a budding trend among social media platforms. Last week, YouTube rolled out YouTube Newswire, a new feature designed to give YouTube more direct control over how news organizations and other enterprises make use of the “found” video shot by eyewitnesses that get uploaded to the site around breaking news events.
The new service is a partnership with social news agency Storyful, which will provide human curators and editors to verify videos of high profile events and make them embeddable by news organizations from the original source.
“With the Newswire, we hope to provide journalists with an invaluable resource to discover news video around major events, and to highlight eyewitness video that offers new perspectives on important news stories,” YouTube said in a blog post. “The Newswire will feature global and regional feeds that surface the most relevant videos in different parts of the world.”
As with Twitter’s Project Lightning, YouTube has not indicated whether it will attempt to monetize Newswire directly. But as it begins rolling out ad-free subscription products for consumers, it’s not hard to imagine Newswire eventually evolving into a subscription product for enterprise users, or at least growing a subscription tier.
Like Twitter, YouTube is also facing pressure to develop new, incremental revenue streams as Facebook and other platforms begin to challenge it video supremacy on the web and its dominance of the online video advertising business. As the battle for consumer eyeballs and consumer marketing dollars heats up, social media may be poised for its enterprise moment.