The new Twitter: just another pretty face?

There's a lot of buzz around Twitter's latest facelift but marketing specialist David Lavenda questions that it really is the ticket to reach the masses of social networkers

Twitter recently decided to change its user interface and, at the same time, introduce a host of new features. These changes were meant to make it more compelling as a social networking platform and, at the same time, make it more intuitive for the un-initiated to grasp. However, there are rumblings that Twitter’s facelift has left many feeling a little … disconnected.

So, why did Twitter deem it necessary to make these changes?

While there has been a deal of commotion around the hundreds of millions of Twitter users, in truth a more realistic assessment of its actual usage paints a very different picture. A recent post quoted Twitter’s CEO in June 2011 saying that “100 million people use Twitter each day, even though 40 per cent of Twitter account owners have not logged into their accounts in the past 30 days.” A more frank post by Business Insider, Nicholas Carlson, revealed that there are ‘only’ 56 million Twitter users following eight or more accounts, and just 21 million users following 30 or more accounts. Reading between the lines, it is fairly safe to assume that the other Twitter users may not be that active.

Active users

Further statistics are also fairly condemning. A 2010 Nielsen study found that 67 per cent of UK Twitter users spent less than five minutes on Twitter per month, accounting for just 4 per cent of total traffic. On the other hand, 7 per cent of heavy users (over 60 minutes per month) accounted for 79 per cent of Twitter traffic. In a similar vein, a December 2010 report from Sysomos found that 80.6 per cent of Twitter users have made fewer than 500 tweets, and 22.5 per cent of users are responsible for 90 per cent of all tweets.

Don’t misunderstand me; this isn’t a Twitter-bashing piece, as what they have accomplished is quite remarkable. Twitter is a powerful network used by millions of people and thousands of brands. But what I read into these numbers is that Twitter has an influential following among the early adopter/connector types. And while these people are extremely effective in sharing information, creating trends and selling products, Twitter seems to be struggling to reach the mass market of social networkers.

Why is that?

Twitter’s challenge is that it offers a revolutionary way to communicate, requiring a radical change in user behaviour. In the past, people did not trumpet 140 character messages to the Ether, not knowing where the messages would fall. In fact, many heavy users of Twitter still haven’t figured out how this is supposed to work – blasting out way too many ‘another-morning-with-cold-coffee’ messages to interest even the most ardent of followers.

Building relationships

Contrast this to Facebook in the consumer world or LinkedIn in the B2B world. Facebook and LinkedIn both use a connection-oriented approach that creates a ‘relationship’ between the two participants, and I think this makes all the difference. Following someone who may not care you exist does not create a meaningful bond; case in point, @SpongeBob has almost 310,000 followers. Twitter is more like subscribing to a news feed than actually connecting people, which is unnatural. Social connections are mutual, so offering mutual relationships online is a smoother transition than creating a whole new pattern for communicating. In the Twitter world, direct messages seem to be the most social part of Twitter, and I suspect they represent only a tiny fraction of all tweets.

The revolutionary vs evolutionary battle for social networking is also playing out in the enterprise world as well, inside companies. Companies are looking to take advantage of what social networking can bring to business, but getting workers to join the conversation is really tough. Some companies are taking the Twitter approach, requiring workers to adopt a new way of working, eschewing email and documents for wikis, microblogging, ideation engines and similar new social tools. Others are taking a more evolutionary approach, using existing communication patterns to ease people into the adoption of social tools.

We’re seeing growing evidence of a social business groundswell. I’ve got my money on this being the biggest trend since Y2K. I’ve also got my money on the evolutionary approach winning – hands down. And let’s face it, the stakes are pretty high.