There’s no denying Twitter needs to find its focus. For the last year it’s been dabbling in a number of experiments to increase its user base, and convert more visitors into signed up and active users.

The social network -whose CEO Dick Costolo announced his resignation on Thursday- sits at an odd position within the social landscape, as its name and image are as well known as Facebook’s -thanks to its high profile users-, but its user base is less than a fourth its size.

In order to get any value out of Twitter, you practically need to be a power user, which means there’s a steep learning curve. It’s intimidating when you’re new to the service as it’s tough to adapt to its relentless metabolism with new tweets popping up every millisecond. Plus it can be a lonely place to be if you don’t know how to go about building a following.

By rewarding timely tweets that are comedic, opinionated and often controversial, people coming from the world of Facebook statuses are quickly alienated. But does Twitter really need these people? Shouldn’t they be left on “the social network” where everyone is?

It takes a certain amount of gumption to successfully tweet. And that’s not a quality that everyone possesses on a platform mostly made of cyber strangers whose attention you want to grab. There are inherent differences between what content flies on Facebook, and what does on Twitter. And let’s just say, the encouragement your friends provide on the former generally doesn’t translate to the latter.

YouTube and Twitter users are among the most aggressive in the world, and they’ll tell you what they think. That’s if your tweets actually get noticed.

Remember when I said Twitter is for power users? Well it’s also for strategic users, who know what content works and when to post. Just picture it, hundreds of tweets per second. Thousands of tweets per minute. If you’re too friendly, or you’re too boring, your tweet will likely be swept away by the next wave of a hundred. Building an audience on Twitter is one of the most challenging things I’ve had to do online, and it’s taken me years to gain a good grasp on how to craft a great tweet. (See how I’m doing @DomHennequin)

Therefore converting visitors into signed up Twitter users will remain a challenge until something fundamental changes. But does Twitter really need to grow?

Considering there are 302 million active users on the service, less than Instagram and Tumblr, there sure are a lot of interactions happening on the site every second. Although it can be hard getting used to the service, succeeding makes you more committed to the cause. People who love Twitter, love Twitter. I don’t think you can say the same about Facebook.

Furthermore, Instagram users, large in numbers though they are, post on average one or two photos per week. And, it’s not a place to host an actual conversation. Tumblr is still incredibly broad, and seems to be undergoing an internal conflict as to what content of its large spectrum it favours. Similarly Snapchat is at the forefront of its own unique form of communication and video consumption, and isn’t eating into Twitter’s bread and butter just yet.

It’s unrealistic to expect Twitter’s growth to match that of Facebook’s. They run on very different principles, and shouldn’t be measured by the same criteria. And while Wall Street is right to expect the company to grow, some suggestions to make that happen have been down-right ridiculous.

Let’s dismiss any notion of eradicating the 140-character limit in Tweets. While they’re about to remove the need for it in the messaging product, it can’t truly be on the table for tweets overall. It would remove most of what’s left that’s unique about the service, with hashtags and tagging widely adopted by other platforms. However what they could consider, as Chris Sacca suggests in his 8,500 word essay on the company’s future, is categorising tweets better using streams. Especially during live events.

“Done right, live Twitter will have sports scores and TV listings front and center and will be the place everyone visits first to see how the game is going or when the show starts,”

Just doing that would improve the chances of converting visitors into users, as well as making the service better for the existing user base.

Most people who love Twitter are power users. If the platform could make it easier to learn how to become one, it might show its value more successfully to potential sign ups. I learned how to tweet well through trial and error, often during live events. The one thing that Twitter truly has that no one else does in social media, is the uniqueness of people experiencing the same thing at the same time, and talking about it from anywhere in the world. Whether it’s watching the Superbowl, Game of Thrones, Q&A or unfolding breaking news, Twitter rewards clever interactions in real-time. The most satisfying experiences on Twitter, are high-risk ones where what you say may be ridiculed, embraced, or at worst ignored. It needs users who thrive off of the lack of friction between thought and tweet.

Twitter can’t just grow for the sake of growing. It needs to focus in on the users and interactions that make it incomparable to other social networks. It’s lucky to have held onto its crown as the social site for live events without doing very much so far. But that lack of innovation will soon show itself if it doesn’t evolve, quickly. If it doesn’t the appeal for veteran users who’ve kept the network up and running may begin to wane and Twitter can’t afford that.

By staying still, they will fail. By changing too much, they will fail. But by growing smart, they will thrive.

Tagged with →