Twitter has garnered an incredible amount of free publicity as the result of President Trump’s use of the platform. His tweets have kept Twitter in the news more or less daily, and as such, many observers were expecting a “Trump Bump”—a rise in the number of users and the amount of revenue due to all this free publicity (easily worth millions, if not billions) Twitter was receiving. The platform had been ailing—user growth was flat and revenue was slow—and the assumption was that those numbers would be heading up.
According to Twitter’s latest quarterly report, the reverse was true: Twitter had its slowest growth quarter ever on a global basis, its user growth in the U.S. was zero, and ad revenue was down.
How can that be?
Twitter claims (and we concur) that many of the users who pay attention to the President’s tweets don’t sign up for the platform—you can read tweets whether you’re logged-in or not, you just can’t respond to them.
We’ve long thought that this presented a real opportunity for Twitter if they could figure out how to make it work for them. The base of people who are willing to tweet and reply to tweets is always going to be limited by simple psychology: not a whole lot of people feel comfortable saying anything in a public forum, even something as banal as “Today is Thursday” and that severely limits their potential user base.
They have struggled (and continue to struggle) with finding ways to both count and monetize all those non-users who view Twitter, either on the site directly or via Tweets that have been embedded elsewhere.
Speaking of monetization, it’s also notable that all the attention has not impacted ad sales. While our friend Rich Greenfield sees good things ahead for Twitter in the long term, we’re not convinced. One thing all the recent attention has done is allow advertisers to focus on what a cesspool Twitter frequently becomes, with bullying and bots and troll wars and flame wars and people using anonymity to show off the worst sides of themselves.
In other words, not an ideal place for any type of advertiser.
Add in a number of well-publicized cases of public harassment, a hard-core porn selection that makes Twitter look like PornHub, lack of accountability, and armies of bots, and it’s no wonder advertisers are staying away in droves.
This is possibly fixable, but Twitter has yet to come up with anything resembling a workable solution. Their announcement this week that they were instituting a system that would prevent trolls from setting up new accounts every time their old ones got shut down was met with much skepticism, trolls being fairly resourceful when it comes to getting around those sorts of roadblocks. Ditto the baffling (to our ears) announcement that certain offensive words and phrases would be hidden rather than blocked (and easily accessed by anyone wanting to see them!)
This bit of tone deafness on Twitter’s part has long baffled us. If someone posts something nasty about a user, hiding it so that the user can no longer see it doesn’t solve anything. It’s still there. The victim knows it’s still there, even if they can no longer see it, and that is not going to make anyone feel better or safer. One super obvious thing to do would be to set the software so that if a user blocks someone, that person is no longer allowed to @ mention the blocker in any tweets and all their old tweets mentioning the blocker are instantly deleted. Granted, this is a small band-aid—a dedicated troll will come back with a new handle after being blocked or just use a variant of the blocker’s name, e.g. Le5lie instead of Leslie. But it’s a way to give the person being harassed some control, to give them some action they can take beyond summoning the Twitter monitors and hoping they’ll come running.
Monetizing The Non-Users
Regardless of how it handles (or doesn’t handle) trolling, Twitter still needs to find a way to monetize all those non-users who are coming to the platform to read President Trump’s tweets. Step One would seem to be acknowledging that few of them are ever going to sign up for the platform as is, and take it from there.
Solutions could involve creating a separate type of view-only membership, changing the platform so that non-users see more ads than users, charging big companies for the right to have an account—we’re not going to solve Twitter’s problems in a blog post, but rather, wanted to point out that whatever changes they make will need to be substantial.
Twitter does need to address this issue now, because the current setup is not working, and unless they take some drastic steps to fix it, Twitter will be history faster than you can say “Milo Yiannapoulis.”