Twitter’s Opportunity

While social messaging applications have experienced unprecedented growth in the past two years, it is no secret user growth at Twitter has not reached its forecasted potential. Growth was at 126% year over year in 2011, and sits at around 25% in 2014. Obviously this percentage will go down over time but even still, taken alone, this latest number is encouraging and fans of the service hope to see this kind of growth continue. Nevertheless, Twitter has watched a handful of companies pass them by and make waves in the industry. With the global ubiquity of mobile messaging apps, one can’t help wonder if Twitter missed a huge opportunity.

Of course, Twitter is more than just a messaging app. It’s a unique platform that has a lot going for it. Twitter already has great partners, amazing presence across all media channels, lots of content and a trusted brand. These are actually some of the hardest things to achieve, pieces other companies would love to have. The right combination of product decisions could potentially propel Twitter to join the ranks of the billion-user club. Execution is everything of course, but here are some things Twitter could do a lot better with their product and in the process drive even greater user growth and engagement.

1. Communication is life’s killer app. And communication is entirely about conversations. As it stands tweets are presented to stand on their own, requiring multiple clicks to get to entire conversations. The mobile experience in particular should be consistent in presenting conversations in a manner that is easily digestible, retrievable and searchable. Another manifestation of this should take place within the lists feature. Users should be able to tweet to a list. There would need to be constraints around this to prevent spam behavior, but group messaging is a naturally social behavior. Fred Wilson suggests Twitter should make tweetstorms a product. I think this is a interesting idea, but takes one step too far too soon. Twitter should get public mobile conversations right, and organic behaviors like tweetstorms will spread far more quickly. The major behavioral challenge Twitter faces compared to other mobile messaging apps is public vs private messaging. Twitter’s unique culture and value proposition is all about open, public messaging. They will need to balance this approach with the potential upside of building around private (direct) messaging.

2. Television viewing behavior is increasingly out of band. People are watching shows where and when they want to, the one or two exceptions being live sports and live talent competitions. Using Twitter while watching live programs is an amazing experience, allowing users to interact with each other and with the personalities on the screen. I can count on one hand the companies that have their logo beamed to millions of active viewers during a program. Twitter is actually incoporating new metrics that try to capture this reality.  This is an advantage unique to Twitter that they should be capitalizing on. Instant replays, extra content not shown on TV, and even re-broadcasts of entire shows (think social DVR) are content plays Twitter should be thinking about. Millions of conversations are already happening around a specific piece of content using hashtags and mentions. Twitter should build product around this natural behavior.

3. One knock against Twitter is the noisy timeline. Every tweet is displayed in your timeline. Rather than break this model, I would like to see Twitter improve it’s Discover feature. While Timeline represents a stream, as it should, Discover should represent my feed, one that captures the ideas of my broader network, is smart and constantly evolving to show me what I want to see. Currently the Discover feature seems to be based more on popularity than personalization, which means I’ve probably already seen the same tweet, or some version of the same story. This just adds to the noise. I rarely check the Discover feed. Content these days is all about capturing attention and Twitter is precisely positioned to do a great job at this, both in breadth and depth. The bottom line is that this feed needs to be smarter — make it my go-to news source that I check every morning.

4. Photos and photo sharing is probably the next biggest driver of user social interaction, second to messaging. People love taking photos and sharing them with whomever they want. And yet after more than seven years, Twitter is still not strongly associated with photos. Only recently did they start supporting tagging in photos, a feature which helped Facebook explode in popularity during their early years. In addition, not getting a deal done with Instagram to display photos inline was and continues to be a major blow for Twitter. Regardless, Twitter has failed to drive innovation in this space and has suffered for it. The Vine acquisition was a strong move on its own. But as a broader social experience, the photo and video features on Twitter should have a greater product presence and be positioned to attract more users.

5. Twitter made a bold and strategic move when it restricted use of its public API. Developers were basically told they should build atop Twitter at their own risk. I’m not sure Twitter has fully recovered from this decision. While a completely open API may not be necessary, partnerships with key application developers would have bolstered Twitter’s role as a social platform. Rather than build their own Music product, which did not fare well, Twitter could have worked with the likes of Pandora, Spotify, and even iTunes to build those experiences into Twitter. Gaming is another growing vertical Twitter has failed to take advantage of, one that is ripe for innovation. One vertical in which Twitter has shown some progress is in commerce and payments, including their integration with Amazon Cart and their recent acquisition of CardSpring. The development of Twitter Cards is a step in the right direction on this front, supporting a variety of user interactions such as subscription and eventually an increased roll-out of commerce capabilities. Still, by now Twitter should have grown beyond the borders of its application and positioned itself as a social platform, powering public communications across applications and the web.

6. This point is more of a personal request, and admittedly one I’m still thinking through. There seems to be two camps when it comes to the Favorites feature: Those who use it as a “Like” button, which appears to be the majority, and those who use it as a way to bookmark content. I’m in the latter camp. Either way, I think there is a better way for Twitter to build product around all this favorited content: Make it searchable and retrievable so that users keep coming back to their favorite posts and photos. My personal library.

Twitter has already made some significant changes to their interface, targeting both the on-boarding process and the read-only experience. I think some of the points above would go even further to make Twitter an amazing consumer experience.

Twitter may never need to join the billion-users club. Despite my ambivalence to Promoted Tweets, Twitter’s advertising units have been performing incredibly well lately. It’s quite possible Twitter becomes extremely profitable with less than 500M users globally.

And of course, as a vehicle for social movements around the world, Twitter has already left a significant, immeasurable mark on history.

And yet. In the ongoing global expansion of mobile devices and mobile platforms, some 7 billion users, and given Twitter’s successes to this point, it would be disappointing to not see Twitter grow its user base significantly and become a social platform used regularly by a majority of the world’s population.