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Monday, November 07, 2016

Why Twitter risks a similar fate as BlackBerry

Twitter's woes are well-known. Its user-base has been stagnating, it's been looking to be acquired, but nobody has stepped up - apparently Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Salesforce and others have looked but walked past. (Personally I'm quite glad - I'd be very upset if either Google or MS bought Twitter as they own this blog's platform and my LinkedIn account respectively, and I don't want any further consolidation of my online presence).
Other companies in the "social", "messaging" and "information flow" spaces are out-stripping it in growth and coolness - for example, SnapChat for consumers, with the addition of broadcast media-type streams from celebrities or TV channels.

But I think one important comparison and lesson from history hasn't been well-described: Twitter has some of the characteristics of BlackBerry, c2012-13. In particular, it's very hard to continue growth when your company has very disparate groups of users and use-cases, especially split between consumers and businesses.

BlackBerry had a whole range of tensions stemming from keeping two main groups happy:
  • Businesses and government users who wanted secure email, plus some optimised Internet access and maybe a few serious productivity/enterprise mobility apps.
  • Teenagers and young consumers, who wanted BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), unfettered Internet access and a wide range of apps from games to social. This was especially true outside the US, where younger prepay customers had to pay per-SMS rather than getting plans/bundles. It also had a separate PIN identity, which appealed where people didn't want to give out a phone number, eg Middle East.
  • (Note: both groups liked the keyboard)
The tensions here were very hard to reconcile. One group was interested in security, integration with corporate IT infrastructure and (hopefully) enterprise apps. The other wanted cheaper / cooler devices, support for social networking, and messaging that evolved to compete with Whatsapp and its peers with emoji and stickers etc. 

The consumer team was competing (fruitlessly) against Apple's app support and brand, as well as Android's plummetting device margins. The enterprise team needed systems integration support, and was working against the BYOD tide as employees demanded to be allowed to use iPhones. Microsoft was also spending huge sums to become the #3.

I see something similar as a risk for Twitter. It too has multiple constituencies:
  • Consumers are using Twitter to update friends, cross-post pictures from Instagram, follow sport or celebrities or politics, watch realtime news events unfold - and perhaps engage in group activities from finding food trucks to becoming involved in protest movements.
  • Brands are using Twitter for some forms of social CRM and advertising - perhaps informing people about airline delays, or fielding complaints and customer-service questions.
  • Business users look at Twitter as a discussion platform, a way to promote company news or events, or share news items and analysis. 
I fall into this last category of business users. I don't really use @disruptivedean for personal stuff, although occasionally I'll use my follower numbers as a "do you know who I am?" blunt-instrument if I want to make a point, or complain about something (sorry about that!) as I suspect it makes me appear more "influential" and prioritised for action, than a random anonymous egg account.

But that doesn't stop me getting irrelevant notifications like this, from the new Twitter Highlights service:

 I also have screen real-estate wasted with the pointless "explore" tab, mostly giving me suggestions about sports I never watch or as right now - and I'm not making this up - "When Justin Beiber plays at your pub" and "A baby iguana chased by snakes has nation in a frenzy".

Now I recognise that other people are fascinated by this stuff. But the ongoing drift of Twitter to try to compete with SnapChat, Buzzfeed on Facebook and assorted news/media sites detracts from my (and many of my contacts') use-cases. I also need to try to keep as much of Twitter's curation algorithms away from me as possible - I want a raw feed, not what it *thinks* I want to see first, and I don't want mentions or retweets to be filtered.

Personally I try to firewall my personal social stuff (Facebook, Instagram, in the past SnapChat & I might try again) from my business life (Twitter, LinkedIn, this blog, maybe Slack in future). A couple of communications apps like Whatsapp and Skype cross the boundary, but I view Twitter as an important part of my B2B interaction. I don't want to see it getting too consumerised. Incidentally, Twitter makes some money out of me too - I sometimes pay for advertising, for example if I publish a report. (Blatant plug: buy my eSIM study! link)

So the question I have is how Twitter manages to reconcile its B2B, B2C [CRM], B2C [Media] & C2C uses without alienating any of its constituencies. Based on BlackBerry's experiences, I think it's going to struggle - unless perhaps it positions itself more as a platform, or gives users much better filtering tools.
Some people may also recall that I used to run a paid (locked) Twitter feed called DApremium (link) about 4-5 years ago. It was a nice idea and generated some revenues for me, but interaction like retweets and multi-party debates was hard because the tweets were protected. I'd definitely be interested in mechanisms to do something similar in future - and would happily do a rev-share with Twitter if it was well-designed.

Meanwhile, I'm definitely interested in other options in case Twitter decides against business users as a strategically important group. I am increasingly getting more followers on LinkedIn (it distinguishes contacts from followers if you post articles - some people don't realise), and it's a pretty good platform for discussion in comments. I'm open to other suggestions too. Meanwhile, if you're not already following me, I'm @disruptivedean for now at least! (link) as well as here on LinkedIn.

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