Tipping Pitches: Technology: What Twitter Could Learn from Facebook


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Technology: What Twitter Could Learn from Facebook

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Twitter has changed the way we share information. It's changed the way we search. It's changed the way we are alerted of breaking news. It's changed the way we market products.

And it's become a place where casual and new users are unwelcome.

It's important to remember that the word "we" in the cases above refers to a select few who have mastered the microblogging service. While there are approximately 20 million users in the US, a staggering number never make a single tweet or survive past a month.

Twitter has a big problem. It's done a great job of showing value, breaking through with the Oprahs and Ellens. Millions started using it personally or professionally during the past year because it appeared to be the right thing to do. Many leaped in carelessly without knowing how to use it.

Then they realized the work involved. Many left.

I have used Twitter for about a year now, combining my professional and personal use. I have committed to it for personal use in about October of 2009 (have had an account since March, but really dove in later on). My latest professional use is being implemented by the American Cancer Society in the Great West Division.

I still have plenty to learn, but I "get" Twitter.

Make no mistake, it's a lot of work. There's a lot of talking to yourself. There's a lot of second guessing. There's a lot of butt kissing and talking to others who often don't respond. There's a lot of searching for the right people to follow, and deciphering whether people are interesting, spammers or scammers. There's a lot of time spent wondering if you're doing the right thing or if you're wasting your time.

Once you break through, there is a reward. Once you get that captivated audience, your talking becomes a conversation with others. People want to hear what you have to say. People want to share what you share with their own audience.

Now, I'm not completely there yet -- either personally or professionally. But I know it will happen. It takes time and a lot of work, but I've seen improvement and I've seen the results from others. I'm also confident that the way I'm using Twitter is appropriate, and that I will continue to learn from my mistakes and the advice of others.

I'm not talking to myself as much these days. I have some "friends" (mutual followers) with whom I have conversations and enjoy sharing information. I follow some pretty cool people who provide me a constant stream of news and interesting tidbits.

But you've gotta wonder... Why would a casual person ever want to use Twitter? Why would a business without a person whom they can dedicate to Twitter even bother?

I hear a lot of snickering from Twitter loyalists about how Facebook's quarterly rounds of changes are their attempts to "be more like Twitter." Facebook isn't becoming more like Twitter. They are evolving to include some of Twitter's features. They are looking to provide what Twitter provides and so much more. As a result, Facebook may eventually make Twitter irrelevant.

Twitter could learn a thing or two from Facebook.

Accessibility to New Users
Facebook is easily accessible to new users. It's a piece of cake. Create an account. Find friends by searching your e-mail contacts or looking through lists Facebook provides based on where and when you went to a certain school or where you worked. It's incredibly easy to find people you know, and once you've found a couple it just snowballs with mutual friends.

Twitter is virtually inaccessible to new users. You create an account. Then it's pretty much up to you.

[Note: Twitter did add the ability to search by e-mail address. However, my personal e-mail contact list isn't particularly complete. So you know how I compiled an e-mail contact list? I went through all of my Facebook friends, profile by profile. And after going through 500 people, you know what I got? Virtually nothing. Maybe 10% of my Facebook friends have a Twitter account, and almost all are inactive.]

It's an empty feeling for many. They don't know who is reading what they write. They tweet away. No one answers. They get a follower, only to find out they are spam. To properly use the service, they need to tirelessly research which tools to use and how to use them.

If you're a newbie, the world of Twitter is a cold, cold place.

That could change with some familiar faces. I want to follow people I know. These are the people who will provide the strongest relationships. They are the people I trust. How do I find them?

There is value in following people in specific industries, celebrities, and news outlets. That's fine. But building relationships is the biggest challenge. And Twitter makes this difficult for the new user.

Usability for Casual Users
You can be a casual Facebook user. Check in every hour, every day, every week, every month. Whatever. Your friends aren't going to reject you because you stopped updating five times per day.

I stopped using Twitter for a week during the holidays so that I could focus on my three-dimensional family. The result? I lost 31, or 10%, of my followers.

Don't get me wrong, I have no need for those followers who require me to retain my 10-update-per-day pace through the holidays. There is clearly not a relationship there.

But this is the thing. On Twitter, you need to remain active to retain an audience. In general, the audience is unforgiving. You have to be consistent. You have to tweet several times per day. You have to provide value.

This is terrible for casual users. You simply cannot expect that from casual users. And because of this, casual users will find little value in the service.

Why Change is Needed
I'm not a Twitter hater. I see the value. I've experienced the value. But if it is going to continue to grow, Twitter needs to be usable by new and casual users. While the dedicated can still reap the greatest rewards (particularly professionally), it is wrong to snub the new and casual by keeping them behind the velvet rope.

2009 was a year of inflated numbers for Twitter. Huge successes based on the large number of new users. Individuals and companies alike were encouraged to dive in without fully knowing why or how. Many accounts were DOA.

Change is necessary if Twitter is ever to revolutionize the way we all get and share information, as was originally claimed by the Twitter masses.

Twitter simply isn't a place for the casual. It's a cold place for the newbie. But Twitter needs the new and casual users, and they need to retain them. Without them, Twitter will only be a niche service, embraced and championed by a small minority.

Most damning, however, is that once the fact is separated from fiction and hype dies down, people will stop "trying it out" for personal use. They know what it's all about. They've already tried it, and they've already either committed to it or quit (the majority will quit). Companies, now informed on what it takes to effectively manage a Twitter account, either will or won't jump in. There will be less dabbling and testing.

The Solutions
How can Twitter become a warmer place, accessible to the newbie and usable for the casual user? I have a few suggestions.

1. Make finding people you know and trust easier. Why is this so difficult? There are directories to find people by category, but I care about finding specific people I know. How can I find former classmates? Professional or personal contacts? The e-mail address search is fine, but who knows which e-mail address they use for their Twitter account?

When a profile is created, allow the ability to label it "personal" or "company." If personal, provide fields for work history and education. This information doesn't necessarily need to be displayed publicly, and the user shouldn't need to provide it at all. It can simply be used to help find people.

This way, once you mention that you graduated from Cornell College in 1997 and worked for the NBA from 2005-'08, Twitter can quickly find people you may be interested in following. It can also help you find brands with which you have a personal connection. You worked for the NBA? Follow these accounts...

Additionally, why not use e-mail addresses and contact lists to track down more people to follow? Import GMail, Outlook or Yahoo! Mail contacts to find people you know who are using Twitter. [This is now done.] Maybe a third party app could allow you to match Facebook friends with their Twitter accounts.

I mentioned it in a previous blog entry as well, but a "mutual friends" feature would do wonders. Someone follows you, but who are they? If you are told that this stranger is followed by five people you trust, suddenly they become someone interesting whom you may want to follow.

By making these simple changes, Twitter suddenly becomes a much warmer place for new and casual users. It's less work. They quickly find people they trust and build their networks. They are much less likely to give it up and move on. And they aren't stressed to maintain a certain involvement or risk losing followers.

2. Cut the spam. I realize this is easier said than done on Twitter. It's pretty easy on Facebook. You "friend" people you know and trust and aren't bothered by people you don't know. Twitter is different. You'll follow people you know and trust, but you're open to people you don't know. It's part of the beauty of Twitter.

But spam is taking over Twitter. Automated accounts and "people" who aren't actually people at all. It's turning what was a warm, info-sharing community into a cold, lonely place overrun by rats.

Twitter has rules against spam. Hopefully they are enforcing them.

Twitter can also do more to discourage spammy behavior. I alluded to something similar in another blog entry, but Twitter should create a score or metric that helps classify a profile as a spammer. Whether or not that profile is banned, it will alert people that this is someone they should probably not follow, thus opening up their DM inbox to them. Additionally, third party applications that auto-follow users could then flag spammers and ignore them.

While spammers are tolerated by committed Twitter users, they are a reason that many newbies and casual users bolt the service. Not clear on whom they can trust, they are excited to be followed. Someone finds them interesting! This is great! They follow back. Then they are bombarded by garbage.

Twitter is a great marketing tool, but it is no place for spammers. None of us wants to hear from them, so let's put them in their proper place. If they can't be eliminated, Twitter at least needs to make life more difficult for them so that they are not rewarded for their behavior.

In Conclusion
I understand that Twitter purists will hate these suggestions. "Keep Twitter simple," they say. "Making Twitter anything like Facebook is a laughable idea," they snicker.

Fine. Ignore that Facebook was even mentioned in this blog entry as a comparison point. Do you want Twitter to grow? Are new and casual users important? Do you want to engage more people? Do you want to make yourself easier to find by people who know and trust you or your brand?

Then the answer should be easy: Change, though always difficult, is necessary.

Or Twitter will remain as it is. Cold. Overrun by rats. Success behind a velvet rope.

But secretly bleeding.


rachel said...

I took to Twitter faster than I took to Facebook. Maybe because it took a few years before people I knew were actually on facebook. My preference was myspace until I got a phone with apps, and I ended up liking the fb app a little better.

I like that you have options with Twitter in terms of who you follow & who follows you. I do agree that it would be nice if there were other options to find people. My friends aren't on Twitter so I'd be more interested in finding people with common interests. Maybe if there were public lists based on interests to use as an initial guide of who you might like to follow.

What I'd really like is a way to organize the people I follow. It annoys me that I have to page through everyone just to find one person for a DM.

Jon Loomer on December 30, 2009 said...

Always good to have another point of view, Rachel. Part of it, I'm sure, has to do with personalities and what people are most comfortable doing. I prefer Facebook because I am most comfortable sharing information with people I know -- or at least controlling which information is viewed by which people. It took me a long time to dive in with Twitter because I just wasn't comfortable opening myself up to strangers. I've done that, but it would help to have more friendly faces around -- or be able to easily find those friendly faces -- to make it an easier transition.

I don't claim to know it all yet. Still learning. But the fact that I have committed myself to Twitter -- for better or worse -- and have reservations makes me wonder how we can ever expect the typical new user to stick around.

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