From Beyond 140 to the boardroom: Will Twitter's shakedown woo marketers?

Twitter’s future is a hot topic right now. Between board departures, a rumoured overhaul of its beloved 140-character limit and a spate of new features it’s clear that the platform is braced for change in 2016. The Drum caught up for marketers to find out what they made of the recent shake-up and how they think the platform could be improved.

When Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey was confirmed as permanent chief executive he promised to do "whatever it takes" to help the social network grow and "give more utility to the people who love to use it daily".

In his short tenure he has tried to woo publishers and advertisers alike through a string of new changes including the launch of the site's dedicated news hub Moments, bringing Periscope autoplay to Twitter timelines, ramping up its focus on the gaming community, and publishing new guidelines around speech and conduct on the platform.

The latest upheaval came at the start of this week (24 January) with a slew of top executives announcing they are set to depart, and a new hire in the form of American Express' Leslie Berland as chief marketing officer.

A few weeks ago, the rumour mill spun into overdrive when reports emerged that Twitter was set to replace its trademark 140-character limit with a new function that will allow users to post Tweets containing 10,000 characters. Dorsey addressed the alleged new feature, dubbed 'Beyond 140', in a series of posts telling followers that his team wasn't going to be shy about building more power into its product and "would explore ways of doing so."

It's no secret that Twitter has been struggling to expand its user base, its growth slowed to a crawl in the third quarter of 2015, attracting only four million users from the previous quarter to bring its active count up to 320 million.

Speculation last week suggested that the company had become a potential takeover target for News Corp; though both businesses denied the reports.

So is banishing brevity, reshuffling the board and appointing a new head of marketing the key to pleasing shareholders and advertisers, or are these plays the last roll of dice for the social network?

Building the right experiences

Twitter has been on the lookout for a chief marketing officer since last year to convert its "enormous" 95 per cent brand awareness across key markets into actual users.

Last week (26 January) it appointed Berland to take on the mammoth task, kick-starting a strategy it wanted to implement months ago, when it promised a "deep dive" into the issues holding back its expansion.

However, the news was arguably overshadowed by the sudden resignation of four senior executives just days before. Senior vice-president of engineering, Alex Rotter, vice-president of global media, Katie Jacobs Stanton, senior vice-president of product, Kevin Weil and HR vice-president Skip Schipper all handed in their notice. Meanwhile, Dorsey took to Twitter to assuage staff and investor concerns about the firm's future saying he was "forever grateful" that all those leaving had contributed to the platform.

Twitter’s stock took a dip in light of the news, but James Kirkham, founder of Holler and former global head of social and mobile at Leo Burnett, said he doesn’t believe that the retreats are a sign of “an ailing business.”

“Reinvention internally, fresh blood and fresh ideas, are as vital to a business as longstanding tried and trusted techniques. Even more so in this fickle world of social and mobile,” he commented.

According to Kirkham, Dorsey’s sniping critics have overlooked the fact that Twitter has changed popular culture and flipped real-time news “on its head”; achievements he warns will mean nothing unless the chief executive is able to kick on from this week’s announcements.

In terms of stock value, the reshuffle has may have done little to quash investor concerns, but Ogilvy & Mather's digital director James Whatley thinks that this period of flux may be necessary as Twitter sets out its stall for the year ahead.

"If we're fair to Twitter (and ignore the 'interim' period beforehand) it technically only named its ‘new’ chief executive three months ago. Combine that with an ongoing growth problem and a feature set / road map that is akin to laying the track as the train hits 90mph... it's no wonder that the stock is up and down more so with this recent spate of departures," said Whatley.

Championing content

So what of the so-called new character limit? Cheil London’s head of digital and social Jon Buckley told The Drum that for brands looking to stand out from the crowd, it may be problematic.

“As Shakespeare said ‘brevity is the soul of wit’, and the finest champions of content on Twitter excel within the set limitations."

Pointing to the fact that Twitter’s current 140-limit demands a “single-mindedness of message” to stand out in the site's fast and furious stream, Buckley shared concerns that moving away from this and towards “big blocks of content blocking the feed you need to scroll past to get to the next piece of content you’re actually interested in,” would put users off.

According to reports, the social network is looking to combat this by testing a version of the feature which offers users a new 140-character preview of a tweet, with the option to click and expand should they wish to read more.

"When users read about this ‘astonishing’ sea change in the future of Twitter’s product, they perhaps envision a Twitter feed filled with characters," noted Ogilvy's Whatley.

"This simply will not happen. What is more likely the case is that Twitter will adapt an ‘instant article’ approach (aping Facebook) with long form articles being instantly available within the Twitter platform."

Kirkham, meanwhile, argued that this design would prevent the proposed character count from "destroying the essence" of the platform and actually make it more valuable to marketers.

In this scenario Kirkham said brands could house all content in a singular post rather than link off-site, and use the initial 140-characters “as the headline or the hook” imploring users to tap for more.

“Twitter is following the likes of messenger applications and Facebook by heading towards its own little walled garden concept too. It means bundles of content opportunity, room for all sorts of images, videos, GIFs, copy and 'here' transactions can also be done,” he asserted.

Stepping out of Facebook’s shadow

Lost Boys’ head of social operations Daniel Price contended that Twitter needs to re-think its strategy and streamline its website if wants to galvanise user growth and keep brands happy.

“Twitter has seen something of a feature creep recently, with Moments following Highlights and While You’re Away; sometimes different features on different platforms, it feels messy, tactical and not strategic.”

While he praised the social network's improved ad offering and audience management system ("we can segment to our hearts content”), he said clients want to see a more engaged user base as well as a larger one.

“Twitter can be a strange and lonely place… it really needs to work hard on smoothing the on-boarding process and lessening the learning curve – until this happens user stats will be static or worse.”

According to Price, Facebook's breadth and depth of audience allows it to dominate the race for ad spend; "grow the user base and the spend will follow," he advised.

Looking forward

Tom Thirlwall, chief executive at digital football business Copa90 said advertisers would like to see Twitter embrace its potential as a video platform, and warned that the social giant needs to think carefully about how it can “grow its audience without losing its fanbase.”

“Twitter is where you go to engage with the wider world. For advertisers, the way into this world isn’t by writing lengthy pieces – it’s through video and striking imagery. How Twitter acts next on video and the innovations it brings to the market will be crucial in determining its future success,” he added.

Answering Twitter's detractors, Kirkham said Dorsey's latest series of plays have been "largely unavoidable."

"People always get weird and freaked out when their beloved platform changes. That's natural when you interact with it so often on a daily basis. But simply keeping things the same as they ever were would incite far more critics," he argued.

Twitter undoubtedly fared a rough 2015. When Dick Costlo stepped down amid investor jitters over the social network's dwindling stock price, he left behind a trail of turbulence at the top as uncertainty mounted over who would take his place.

The rumoured 10,000-character limit and recent spate of hires and departures appears to be the tip of the iceberg as far as Dorsey's plans for 2016 go.

With the next batch of the firm's quarterly results due mid-February and mixed reaction in the industry only time will tell if it help alleviate Wall Street and client concerns.

Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is The Drum's breaking news and social media reporter, covering how brands and media companies are using platforms like Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and beyond.

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