Twitter has been through a turbulent time in the last few weeks, with a planned redesign to the platform causing an “RIPTwitter” hashtag to do the rounds and the most recent fourth-quarter results disappointing analysts -- especially in relation to flatlining user growth and a (small) quarter-on-quarter contraction in Monthly Active Users (MAUs). The new leadership has been keen to emphasise its turnaround plans as well as its growing ad-based revenues, but the key problem remains that Facebook -- to which Twitter is so often compared on highly unfavourable terms -- is smashing expectations with each quarter that passes.
While it has become fashionable to criticise Twitter, there is much evidence to suggest that the micro-blogging platform has real reason for optimism. Key to this is looking beyond MAUs -- a metric that made sense once upon a time for a platform like Twitter but which has become increasingly anachronistic and a deadweight around the micro-blog’s neck.
For Facebook, it’s hard to argue that there’s any better engagement measure than monthly or even daily active users. That’s because using Facebook without being logged into an account is a pretty unrewarding experience. It’s a completely different situation on Twitter, which has always been a much more “public” platform where people can interact with the site without needing to be logged in (or, in fact, without having an account at all).
Sure, not being logged in means you can’t Tweet anything yourself, but with our research showing that networking on the biggest sites is becoming more and more passive -– where people are increasingly likely to look at their newsfeeds without posting/contributing anything themselves -- you have to ask, does that matter?
With the user experience being so different on the two sites, it’s simply not sensible to obsess over Twitter’s MAU numbers. Far more crucial for understanding engagement with Twitter is the number of people visiting it each month, regardless of whether they’re logged-in users, logged-out users or people who have never registered for an account at all (and might be unlikely ever to do so in the future).
Look at Twitter on this metric and suddenly things seem a lot healthier; in our global data, about 1 in 5 online adults outside of China report themselves as “active users” in the traditional sense but a more impressive 2 in 5 say they have visited or used Twitter in some form during the past month. As Twitter itself has said before, that means it has hundreds of millions of additional users who don’t come under the “active user” umbrella.
What’s more, our research shows that the visitor number is on a gentle upward curve from a long-term perspective. It’s not growing in the dramatic way that investors and headline writers would like to see, but it’s definitely a positive when the active user numbers are remaining sluggish. It’s also a fair assumption that it would be much easier for Twitter to push up its visitor numbers than it would be for it to attract more registered active users.
Twitter is a site that people might visit for a variety of reasons, especially as it’s so often cited in new stories and has long been seen as a general barometer of how the Internet is feeling (it’s certainly not a coincidence that “reading a news story” emerges as one of the top actions on Twitter in our research, confirming its role as a breaking news platform).
Certainly, the ideal scenario for Twitter is that it attracts more logged-in active users and that it manages to gather more demographic information about them -- allowing it to target ads in the same hyper-effective ways that Facebook has managed to achieve (and which have been key to Zuckerberg and Co.’s ballooning ad revenues). That means it’s absolutely right for Twitter to be making attempts to improve the user experience, which can still be a little frustrating or unclear for non-experts. In this context, changes to character limits, the order in which Tweets are displayed and to how people reply to messages are much needed, despite the inevitable short-term annoyance they will cause to some users.
Critically, however, as long as people are visiting Twitter -- which they are -- they can still be served ads and monetised accordingly. That’s why it’s promising to see Twitter concentrating on revamping the home page; rather than encouraging visitors to sign up as it was before, it’s now showcasing the best content/Tweets available on the site at that moment -- something that is bound to drive up levels of engagement.
Like Facebook, Twitter is also well-positioned to counter the rise of ad-blocking. While it’s almost inevitable that more and more users on both sites will adopt this behaviour, both can rely on native content as well as their users sharing or Tweeting brand-related content/posts. The future might look a little rocky for banner ads and “sponsored” posts/Tweets as we’ve known them so far, but there are plenty of commercial messages shared by users that ad-blockers won’t prevent from being displayed.
Seen in this light, things are looking much more positive for Twitter than the earning results and headlines might suggest. Undoubtedly, there are serious challenges ahead for the site, but it’s probably best to avoid re-tweeting that “RIPTwitter” hashtag for now.