Media, Entertainment and Sport

What should Twitter do next?

Andrea Stroppa
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The news broke while many were still asleep on the West Coast: Jack Dorsey will return as Twitter CEO, Adam Bain will be its new chief operating officer – and former CEO Dick Costolo is no longer on the Twitter board of directors. Dorsey will serve as CEO of both Twitter and Square.

Dorsey posted a series of tweets to explain the move, including this one: “Our work forward is to make Twitter easy to understand by anyone in the world, and give more utility to the people who love to use it daily!”

Stepping up from his current interim CEO position, Dorsey is indeed facing several problems: user growth has clearly slowed, the company business model is far from being optimized, and many users have simply stopped tweeting.

At its launch in 2006, Twitter made a difference by being a tool for immediate communication, making it easy for everybody to spread and share news of any kind, slowly becoming an essential part of today’s political and business landscapes. However, the social media platform has not been able to reach a definite mass audience, as Facebook and Instagram did, and Snapchat is now doing.

Detractors say Twitter is a tool for nerds and will never graduate to being a platform for a wider global audience. In fact, it probably does work much better as a listening platform than as an exchange or dialogue site, and its basic feature – the 140-character post – is perhaps becoming the agent of its demise.

But a larger challenge is at play. While its immediacy has become standard, Twitter still lacks a “plus” technology, a good incentive for people to choose the 140-character feature over WhatsApp or any other instant-messaging service. Neither can it compete with Instagram or Snapchat as a place to share images or videos.

In 2013, Carlo De Micheli and I investigated the proliferation of fake accounts on Twitter, and predicted that the platform would eventually have to pay the price for its underground economy. If an online company’s main business model is to sell sponsored tweets or hashtags, it needs to offer paying advertisers real human page views, not fake ones.

That’s why I believe Jack Dorsey should make it clear to investors and stakeholders that Twitter will immediately tackle the issue of distributed advertising, and provide more reliable and consistent analytics. He should find new ways to encourage activity among existing users while also attracting new users, starting with a cross-platform approach and moving closer to traditional media such as TV. It will also be beneficial to promote new and ongoing experiments such as the Periscope and Vine integration.

However, today’s web behemoths (or aspiring ones) must be transparent about their actual user base; this means deploying strong strategies to rid their platforms of bots. In the forthcoming years, the active and real user metrics will become a major tool in attracting serious advertising. It will also be important to provide more details on user devices and behaviours, including specific interests and activities, in order to enable user-targeted ads instead of generic ones.

Finally, and at any cost, the number of registered and active users must be increased, and internal communication tools must be expanded. Twitter should provide reasons and occasions to improve the efficiency of user interaction, perhaps even breaking the trademark limit of 140 characters. Photo and video sharing are driving economic success for online enterprises, and mobile devices are gaining a central role for both users and advertisers: this is where Twitter and its returning CEO should focus their attention. Good luck!

Author: Andrea Stroppa writes about security and technology for the World Economic Forum.

Image: A person holds a magnifying glass over a computer screen displaying Twitter logos, in this picture illustration taken in Skopje September 10, 2013. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

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