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How will Twitter's new 'relevancy over recency' algorithm affect brands?


By Rebecca Stewart, Trends Editor

February 11, 2016 | 7 min read

An overhaul of its algorithm means that Twitter is now rewarding better content, organic or paid, but advertisers are braced for what could be a precursor to them having to pay to play on the channel, writes Rebecca Stewart and Seb Joseph.

Twitter Best Tweets

Twitter curating the timeline has been a long time coming; it spent much of 2015 experimenting with curation and has finally revamped its timeline to essentially make all content equal, only surfacing the most relevant tweets to users when they first log in or visit the site.

The tweak honours the social network’s real-time nature, but acknowledges the fact that trending discussions can often be missed by users. As such, collated tweets from brands, athletes, politicians and other public figures will appear at the top of the timeline in reverse chronological order to help users tap into the topics driving the most discussion on the platform.

Essentially, the new algorithm is an extension of Twitter’s 'While you were away’ feature, and will be available on Twitter’s mobile and desktop interfaces.

The ‘Best tweets’ feature will serve content to users based on the accounts they follow, the tweets they interact with and the activity of people similar to them; criteria which has, of course, drawn comparisons with Facebook’s news feed model.

Unlike Facebook, which is ranked by relevance and interest over chronology, Twitter is holding on to the real-time element. When rumours of the algorithm change first circulated last week, angry users took to the site to voice concerns that it was set to ape its rival and remove the ability to automatically view the most recent posts, using the hashtag #RIPTwitter. Twitter's chief executive Jack Dorsey assured those complainants on the company's quarterly conference call yesterday (10 February) that the timeline's overhaul is the "fastest way to get back to live without missing any of those tweets that you really wanted to see".

When Facebook introduced a similar change a couple of years ago, many brands thought the move would increase their organic reach, only to discover that instead they had to treat it as a media platform and invest to secure prime spots on users’ feeds via content that was wrapped up within premium ad formats.

Relevancy over recency

Brands it would seem, are wary of getting their hopes up (too much) this time round, though they do see the algorithm's potential.

"A more relevant way to surface content, be it from us as advertisers and brands or people the tweeter interacts with a lot, in my view, is a positive step [for Twitter], said David Parkinson, head of digital at Nissan, Africa and the Middle East.

He went on to warn that Twitter must be wary of the Facebook-effect, saying that over-curation could become an issue for marketers and users alike.

“How they do this moving forwards though, compared to the dwindling organic reach we saw with Facebook, to near zero, is the most important point,” he said, adding “curation is good, over-curation not in benefit to the user, is not - and an area we will be watching with interest as this feature matures.”

For Adidas, the growing similarities between Twitter and Facebook won’t mean they get used in the same way. “I don’t think we’re going to see a Facebook journey on Twitter where we go from 150 to 3 million followers and all our local markets want a piece of its,” said creative strategist and digital experience specialist Kris Ekman.

"We won’t open Twitter up in the same way we have done with Facebook as it’s more about controlling the conversation and getting the content out,” added Kris Ekman,

Twitter’s timeline transformation is emblematic of what Ekman said is peoples “blurring view” of what branded content is now. “It’s getting less about whether something is more promoted because the experience for the user is not so different anymore," he claimed.

The Facebookification of Twitter

There’s no doubt that Twitter is inching closer to its rival with the tweak and as such the discourse around the new timeline was always likely to kick of the ‘delicining organic reach’ conversations that have dogged Facebook for years.

However, as Carat’s global digital partner Jerry Daykin pointed out, Twitter’s fast-moving timeline already does a stellar job of making unsupported posts “disappear into the noise".

“The algorithm will likely favour content with higher engagement, so could slightly help established brands who can use larger audiences or promoted spend to give their content a head start. Contrary to popular belief, Facebook’s own algorithm shows brand content to more people than would see it in a purely live timeline,” he added.

While a lot of brands already make use of promoted tweets (which won't be affected by the change) and sponsored hashtags, organic posts have the ability to drive enormous engagement and cause a buzz – see Oreos ‘You Can Still Dunk in the Dark’ 2013 Super Bowl spot, or more recently #DrummondPuddleWatch – something which the new algorithm could help businesses capitalise on.

Kim Hoeu, paid social lead, EMEA at Essence argued that amidst this new “relevancy on top of recency” approach, advertisers should keep a watchful eye on “dwindling reach, frequency, and organic reach metrics.”

“There’s a chance that users will see less volume in their new, hyper-targeted twitter timelines. If that happens, it’s possible that organic reach – a long-time favourite metric for marketers – will decrease in parallel,” she added.

Content is king

As ever, for marketers the debate will always come back to content, and the quality of it.

“These changes will have little to no impact,” claimed James Whatley, digital director Ogilvy & Mather, “ultimately the best content will shine through.”

Discussing tests Twitter ran around organic tweets and posts from events, both of which noted an increase in user engagement, he told The Drum: “As a result, two kinds of things will happen. On one hand you’ll have the knee-jerk marketer, who will quickly try to fill their content calendars with more organic content covering a vast array of live events.

“On the other, the savvy marketer, who will continue with their well thought-through content strategy and perhaps keep an out on when this change might become relevant to the brand that they work on.”

Twitter rolled out its curated news service Moments last year, enlisting a team of former journalists to pull together the latest headlines, memes, pictures and trends for its 320 million users.

Earlier this week, it unleashed First view, a new video ad offering that allows brands to rent the top ad slot on the timeline, and it is also reportedly working on a live events product. So, dropping timeline curation into the mix is the next natural step for a company that, if its latest figures are anything to go by, is looking to shake things up and court new users.

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