Twitter’s Opportunity

A while back, I took a hard look at Twitter’s stock performance, as well as its third quarter earnings and CEO shakeup, and decided — it’s time. I went and purchased a fairly large (for me — I’m no Sacca!) position in Twitter stock.

Since then, well, you know what’s happening. I could screenshot a picture of the stock price chart, but this gif probably says it better.

$TWTR up 5% today! Woohoo! Only 20% more to go until… we’re back at December’s price.

So, I suppose that’s my disclaimer here: I’m a $TWTR shareholder. Like pretty much everyone in the last three weeks, I’ve lost some money recently.I don’t regret my purchase of Twitter, for the reasons I’m going to lay out here; yet I also see clouds on the horizon that I sure hope every single person on Twitter’s product team is watching.

Twitter is ascendant.

Twitter has an incredible, valuable, inimitable fundamental product. Its prominence, and impact, on our entire society is increasing, not the opposite. Just flip on the TV: news show? Correspondents’ Twitter handles and hashtags prominently displayed everywhere. Sports event? Game-specific hashtags all over the place. (Truly, you cannot escape sportsball twitter.) Celebrities and pop culture? Roll your eyes if you want, but Twitter is one of, perhaps the, biggest channel used to engage with audiences, and many, many people love it. Every single live event today — from the #Grammys to the #SoTU — is heavily tweeted, retweeted, mentioned and argued over.

And Twitter affects real life too. #BringBackOurGirls. #BlackLivesMatter. #IStandWithAhmed. You could name dozens of social and political movements that have relied on Twitter as a critical resource for organizing without even blinking.

Let’s not even start in with politics. Suffice it to say, politics is big on Twitter. Donald Trump has managed to build more support with his free Twitter account alone than Jeb Bush has with over a hundred million dollars in traditional ads. (Sadly, Twitter has managed to win zero of that.)

It has become completely normal for other media outlets, from TV networks to blogs, not just to publish embedded tweets on their own properties, but to make those tweets the subject of the story. Social media is where things are happening that others want to discuss, and almost nowhere more so than on Twitter. (How many of @realDonaldTrump’s Facebook posts do you recall seeing?)

Whenever I hear complaints that Twitter’s slow or stagnant user growth means it’s doomed, I remember all of this stuff and scratch my head. Rumors of Twitter’s death are greatly exaggerated. User growth or no, Twitter is massively influential and only becoming more so.

Why people use Twitter — or don’t

The problem is that close to a billion people have tried Twitter and simply decided it wasn’t for them. The late StartupLJackson made this observation in a terrific post on the topic, “Twitter’s Product is Fucking Fine,” where he explained that “Core Twitter” is not going to make the platform into an advertising success story:

The suggestion that increasing the amount of text you can plug in, or “open” is going to get these users to un-form their opinions is magical thinking. A strategy of re-activation has been tried (if you have an inactive account, you’ve seen the emails) and has not worked. Twitter’s brand is something very different to your cousin who set up an account in 2012 for a shot at free concert tickets than it is to power users. These users are never coming back to (product) Twitter.

He’s right. People use different social products for different things. While I have come to semi-loathe Facebook, roll my eyes at Reddit and have never even tried Snapchat or Instagram, other people love each of these products and (demonstrably) use them. Great! Twitter will likely never rival any of those products for the things they do.

As a place to discover and share new content, in real-time, from almost anyone, however, Twitter simply cannot be beaten. The product is just extremely good, and there is just nothing else like it. I have made new friends on Twitter. I have been offered jobs on Twitter. Twitter has been the single best source for learning new stuff, not to mention professional development, that I know.

Unfortunately, what Twitter does best does not automatically translate into an advertising platform to rival the Facebook goliath. Advertising will always be a part, probably the far largest part, of Twitter’s revenue structure — but the company needs to look beyond ads.

It’s time to think beyond ads

You can only monetize so much out of 300 million pairs of eyeballs.

Several months ago, Chris Sacca, Twitter investor and Cheerleader-in-Chief, laid out an ambitious set of ideas to grow Twitter that take advantage of its natural strength in real-time streaming content. They are nearly all gold: more support for live events, topical channels, location-based channels, a variety of new response types (read receipts, thank-yous). These should all happen ASAP.

Talent sourcing is an obvious opportunity. Many of us list our employers on our Twitter profiles; there should, at a minimum, be a way of listing users by employer. You can bet that recruiters would pay for that, just as many of them today pay LinkedIn to send awful recruitment solicitations. From there, exploring networks of co-workers and ex-colleagues would be valuable data to sell.

Lists have become an invaluable resource for many users. Curating one’s Twitter experience is key to deriving value from it. Junk the Moments tab and replace it with enhanced Lists support: press-and-hold to select a list to view, and so forth. I’d pay for that.

How about customer service tools? Many, many companies are now using Twitter to service customers — I myself am a happy(-ier) Delta customer because of their help there. Twitter is leaving a lot of money on the table by allowing third parties to build their own customer service systems on top of Twitter’s API. Twitter could offer special “cards” for reservations, bookings, tickets or coupons, to be bought and exchanged on Twitter by companies themselves (who paid Twitter for access to the customer service platform).

Many of these features will inevitably be free. Others should not be. Everything is a revenue opportunity.

Trouble Ahead

Just the other day, Facebook announced that not only is WhatsApp getting rid of its 99-cent annual fee, but that the company is exploring new business models for the world’s most popular messaging system too:

Starting this year, we will test tools that allow you to use WhatsApp to communicate with businesses and organizations that you want to hear from. That could mean communicating with your bank about whether a recent transaction was fraudulent, or with an airline about a delayed flight. We all get these messages elsewhere today — through text messages and phone calls — so we want to test new tools to make this easier to do on WhatsApp, while still giving you an experience without third-party ads and spam.

Make no mistake: these use cases are not leveled exclusively against Twitter, but certainly include it (as well as email).

WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger is about as close as the Western world has to a substitute for Twitter. They offer real-time messaging and content-sharing between contacts— but not public, and not searchable, at least in the same way. That could always change.

If Facebook wanted to create a massive new advertising space, it could have allowed ads into WhatsApp and FB Messenger. It didn’t. Rather, the company seems to be targeting more mundane use cases of the median user: interacting with companies, ordering goods, and (my guess, soon) discovering content. This is a very different business model, but also a potentially bigger one. Advertising is a huge market, of course, but fundamentally limited to a number of eyeballs; becoming a conduit to consumer access is another matter entirely.

Twitter’s immediate opportunities are growing its consumer utility, and thus its ad base. But longer-term, Twitter must think more broadly. A 300 million user base that is growing slowly, if at all, might be sufficient to bootstrap new social products (Vine, Periscope, channel-specific standalone apps), but also yearns for new monetization models too. Sell products — either to users, or those who wish to engage with them.

Speaking of which

Finally, you have to address the other elephant in the Twitterstream: Jack Dorsey.

Opinions of @jack run the gamut. To me, he seems like a genuinely and uniquely gifted “0 to 1” guy. It’s hard to knock an entrepreneur who has created two multi-billion dollar companies out of nothing. Credit where it’s due.

But it also bears mentioning that Dorsey was forced out of Twitter, in part, because he was a terrible manager of a company trying to scale. He wasn’t committed (art classes!), didn’t inspire, and had little use for managing revenue growth. I would be willing to assume he’s grown up since then, having built a new company in the meantime; yet today, Dorsey was permitted to take the reigns at a $3bn+ revenue public company… part-time.

I bet you could find 1,000 top-quality product people, both inside Twitter and out, who would leap at the chance to devote their every lasting moment to leading Twitter to success as its CEO. That Dorsey is not one of them says a lot, namely: the board is weak, has too cozy a relationship with management, and lacks the proper sense of urgency.

Company founders have a fundamental authority that non-founders don’t. They can make the case for radical changes that others find difficult to defend to investors, employees and even customers. But Dorsey isn’t Jobs, and this isn’t the Apple story again. I simply don’t believe that any executive can do two things really well at the same time, especially when those things are “lead billion-dollar public companies.” I suspect that Twitter’s Noto and Weil are picking up a lot of this slack — good on them.

I’ve invested in Twitter — the core product — despite Dorsey. I think it’s that strong a product, with that enormous an opportunity, which not even Dorsey can squander. And perhaps he will surprise us all — I sincerely hope so. 2016 will be a big year for the blue bird.

So, what do you think ?