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As Twitter turns 10, what does the future hold for marketing on the platform?

It may be hard to imagine a life without hashtags, but just 10 years ago Twitter's co-founder Jack Dorsey posted the first tweet. As the social network celebrates its 10th birthday, The Drum takes a look at what the next decade will hold for the platform.

Starting from humble beginnings, Twitter (then Twttr), crashed on to the scene in 2006 thanks to a team of developers from fledging podcast company Odeo, who were asked to pitch a fresh concept to help take the firm forward at a hackathon-style event. Dorsey, Evan Williams, Biz Stone and Noah Glass’ project was taken through to the prototype stage, and the rest, as they say, is history.

10 years on, what was once a 140-character SMS exchange has evolved into a publicly traded company that has played a critical role in the rise of real-time marketing and given news the "agility factor". 

The social network, however, is not without its problems. When it comes to attracting new users, it’s struggling to keep afloat in a sea of heavyweights. Emarketer has lowered its growth forecasts for Twitter's ad revenue this year as emerging platforms like Instagram and Snapchat eat away at its user base.

So as it approaches the troublesome pre-teens, what does the next decade hold for the marketing on the platform and how can it remain relevant?

Jack Dorsey Twitter sketch
Jack Dorsey's first blueprint of Twitter sketched in 2006
 
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Cutting through the clutter

Since its inception Twitter has facilitated some of the most creative brand campaigns and some of the biggest PR fails (see: #SusanAlbumParty, #AskJPM and #McDoStories).

One of the biggest light bulb moments for brands struggling to see its potential was Oreo’s ‘dunk in the dark’ Super Bowl touchdown, which was re-tweeted 10,000 times in one hour during a blackout at the Big Game in 2013. The tweet was “designed, captioned and approved within minutes,” making its mark in a space where brands pay millions for, and spend months on, a 60-second slot.

Twitter has been the driving force behind modern real-time marketing, providing the platform for brands such as Nike and MasterCard to hone the way they work with influencers. The former's Olympic #FindGreatness campaign saw it up its retweet count by 100 per cent throughout the tournament in a bid to score points over arch-rival, and official sponsor of the games, Adidas. Samsung's pre-planned #OscarsSelfie is yet another example of the power of the channel. Not only is it the most retweeted post of all time, but the star-studded snap was valued by Publicis' Maurice Lévy at a cool $800 to $1 billion; over five times what Samsung stumped up for the product placement.

An additional turning point was the 2014 ALS ice-bucket challenge which breathed new life into viral campaigns, courting entries on Twitter from the likes of Bill Gates and clocking up over 4.4m mentions in the space of a couple of months.

Despite these successes, Twitter is struggling to gain ground on Facebook and Instagram when it comes to upping the eyeballs reading or watching ads on the site. Its number of actively monthly users has remained largely unchanged over the past six months at 320 million. However, revenue has grown 48 per cent year-on-year according to the firm’s Q4 earnings report; something that suggests an ad overload, which Twitter will need to tackle if it wants to remain relevant in the next ten years.

Bill Gates Twitter Ice Bucket Challenge
The ALS 'Ice Bucket Challenge' clocked up millions of mentions online
 
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“As Twitter becomes ever more cluttered with reactive content, most of which adds very little value to anyone’s life,” said Joe McEwan head of digital and communities at Innocent Drinks.

He thinks the site will need to encourage marketers to focus on creating a individual connections with users, rather than bombarding them with content: "a genuine two-way conversation is worth a hundred retweets," he said.

Another issue is that Twitter is still an afterthought in the mix for many – something Jim Coleman, UK chief executive of We Are Social (which has tailored social drives for Google, Adidas and Cadbury) believes needs to change.

“In the nearer future, I’d like to see more brands creating standalone creative executions for Twitter, rather than rolling out their TV ad with a hashtag as we often see around major sporting events, for example.”

If current trends are anything to go by, then campaigns like this should be by visual media like video: something Twitter's already making a conscious effort to do through Periscope and Vine integration.

Twitter Periscope Live Shark stream
GoPro and Periscope's underwater livestream with great hammerhead sharks was livestreamed on Twitter last month
 
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Move fast, learn faster

In the sink or swim world of startups, Twitter has managed to transcend popular culture and make its mark on the media landscape. “News has changed completely because of the Twitter agility factor,” asserted James Kirkham, founder of mobile agency Holler. This is something Twitter arguably only started taking seriously towards the end of last year with the launch of curated news offering Moments.

While this will help it stand out against competitors in the coming years, Twitter’s own business model remains the elephant in the room. In 2015 alone it underwent the re-instatement of Dorsey as chief executive, a plethora of executive departures and the launch of a new marketing strategy underpinned by the appointment of longtime American Express executive, Leslie Berland, as chief marketing officer.

A move towards longform tweets, (a “beautiful constraint” that Dorsey isn’t afraid to rejig), changing ‘favourites’ to 'likes', and an algorithmic timeline are just some of the things he’s implemented in his short tenure.

However, how Twitter plans to take a walled garden approach to keep users with brands remains a hot topic. Dorsey has said he wants to create a more intuitive experience that offers up a streamlined product portoflio. Twitter can be a minefield to navigate, and the chief is keen to highlight the new “easier to use” side of the service over the next 12 months to appeal to new markets.

Which 'markets' these are exactly will need cleared up if the platform wants to keep up with its rivals and protect its share value. People and brands are still confused about the site's USP. It's used by Joe Public, but also by vloggers, journalists and celebrities. Brands see it as an advertising channel and a customer service portal. This tricky balance between pleasing advertisers and users alike while maintaining its differentiators is likely to be another area that will be key to Twitter's survival in the coming years. You only have to look at the #RIPTwitter outrage to see that tweeters aren’t afraid to let their voice be heard.

While Ford’s vice-president of European communications, Mark Truby, thinks the platform will still important in ten years’ time, he warns that Twitter will have to iron out the corporate side of things.

“Any big story that happens – they found a knife in the OJ Simpson case or revelations came out about David Cameron in some book – the place to go immediately to get a fix is Twitter," he said "I think it’s an incredibly tool in that way."

"Obviously it has to work out the business model and there’s a lot of competition out there but I still think it’s extremely relevant in the day-to-day flow of what people around the world are talking about,” he added. 

While it may not have started 2016 in the best shape, it’s clear Dorsey has big plans to give Twitter a shakedown, “my focus is to build teams that move fast, and learn faster,” he said when he was named as permanent chief executive. Only time will tell if things have moved fast enough by 2026.

Featured by The Drum