Twitter goes public at the New York Stock Exchange on Nov. 7, 2013.
Back in 2009, a little more than three years after Twitter launched, the company tried to address the nagging problem of user retention. It introduced a Suggested Users list intended to help new users find people to follow right away and thereby make the service stickier.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter's cofounder and chairman, admitted at the time that this didn't fully solve the problem. "Our sign-up process is still fairly weak," Dorsey told The Los Angeles Times. "It's not the best way to suggest people to new users because they're...not relevant to everyone."
Five years later, user retention remains as big a concern, if not more. One report earlier this year quoted inside sources saying that Twitter had signed up "at least" a billion users to date. Another report cited an independent tracking service that found Twitter had registered about 1.5 billion accounts. Yet, there were just more than 250 million monthly active users on Twitter as of last quarter.
Investors have homed in on that monthly active user number and raised concerns that growth is slowing down, suggesting that Twitter may never be a truly mainstream service. In reality, signing up for Twitter certainly qualifies as a mainstream activity, but sticking around does not.
The issues of user growth and user retention were highlighted yet again on Thursday when Twitter's COO Ali Rowghani resigned, followed hours later by the head of its media unit Chloe Sladden. As Mike Isaac, a former reporter at Re/code and soon-to-be reporter at The New York Times, wrote in a Medium post Thursday, Sladden's team focused on user acquisition rather than user retention while those working under Rowghani tried "to improve its churn rate, all to no avail."
Twitter's strategy on this front, expressed repeatedly on earnings calls and interviews with its top execs, effectively boils down to a more sophisticated version of what Dorsey and his team tried to do years ago: simplify the sign up experience and make it easier for new users to discover the people and conversations that might interest them. Twitter has emphasized more visuals, introduced threaded conversations that are easier to follow and added some Facebook-style features like photo tagging.
"We're making significant improvements in the new user experience," Dick Costolo, Twitter's CEO, said during an earnings call in February, noting that the company is working to boost engagement from "day one." But the executive departures this week suggest these improvements haven't moved the needle as much as Twitter's leadership would hope.
One of the most common explanations offered for slower user adoption is that Twitter is somehow not intuitive to use. This was particularly true in the early days when the language and mechanics of Twitter — retweets and follows and @-mentions and hashtags — were relatively uncommon. Little by little, though, most social networks have adopted similar terms. Facebook, the most popular social network in the world and the one most describe as easier to grasp, now has hashtags, trending topics, @-mentions and a follow feature. Facebook now effectively serves as a tutorial for how to use Twitter.
The question I most hear from friends and family about Twitter today isn't how to use it, but why to use it?The question I most hear from friends and family about Twitter today isn't how to use it, but why to use it? To keep up with friends and associates? There's Facebook or WhatsApp or Snapchat. To keep up with the news? Most people I know don't feel inclined to follow every incremental update to the news — they just get updates from publications like the New York Times, CNN, ESPN or, yes, Facebook. To have a platform, as some creatives might say? This is part of what keeps me tethered to Twitter. But only 1% of Twitter users actually have more than 3,000 followers, according to one study last year, and the median number of followers for active users is just 61.
Is the reason to be on Twitter to get real-time commentary and information on live events? That certainly appears to be a big part of Twitter's pitch these days, but it's not quite as simple as saying "X is for sharing photos," or "Y is for keeping up with friends." I know several people who open up Twitter occasionally during big entertainment and sporting events, like the Stanley Cup and World Cup. And when those events are over, they let their accounts on the social network gather dust.
The strongest Internet and technology companies are arguably the ones that have some built-in barrier to leaving. Apple has its closed ecosystem which bounds you more tightly with each additional purchase. Facebook is the essential directory for the people you care about most — at its most basic, you need it to find out who is getting engaged and when all the birthdays are. Even LinkedIn, unsexy as it may be, is a necessity if you want to be recruited for jobs in the future.
And then there's Twitter.
The social network is clearly working to be crucial in some similar ways. It overhauled user profiles last month with the goal of becoming your business card, but that role is already filled by LinkedIn. It's interested in boosting its messaging tools to allow more private conversations, but there's no shortage of massively popular messaging apps out there already. It wants you to help you connect to personal networks and send you updates when you're tagged in photos or alert you to birthdays, but there's a much larger social network that already takes care of all that.
So what is the function that makes Twitter an essential service that is difficult if not impossible to leave? According to the company, it is the conversation and real-time updates. "We think of it as an indispensable companion to life in the moment," Costolo said at one event in January.
If Twitter's main selling point is that it's a real-time content delivery service, then its ability to hold onto users will likely depend on a combination of Internet rules (network effects) and traditional media considerations. Are users locked into the service through a subscription or contract? Not yet. is there exclusive, premium content being offered? Yes, but the best of it often gets syndicated to other places too (i.e. tweets from influential Twitter users embedded on news sites or shared simultaneously on Facebook). is there a similar service available with a better experience? For years, the answer was no, but Facebook may change that as it continues to double down on real-time conversation.
Unless you require Twitter for professional reasons or you are part of that elite 1% of users with significant followings, there is really nothing that prohibits you from leaving the social network for a week, a month or indefinitely. For now, Twitter is like a ship with a leak at the bottom. They keep making the ship bigger each year, but they never patch up the leak.