The last few months have begun to confirm a conviction we’ve long held about Twitter–that, in its current form, it’s not likely to become a huge mass-market phenomenon.
Given that the tech community is obsessed with Twitter and that Twitter already has an astounding 145 million users worldwide, that may seem a ludicrous hypothesis–but other data backs it up.
For starters, check out the chart we published this morning from Gawker Media. The chart shows the social-media referrals to Gawker‘s sites over the past year. The main trend in the chart is the collapse of Digg and the rise of Facebook. But an important lesser trend is that Twitter (green) hasn’t grown much as a referral source over the past year, especially relative to Facebook and–surprise–Stumbleupon.
Photo: All Things D, Gawker Media
Why is the Gawker data important? Because, collectively, Gawker Media is a mass-market network of sites. So its traffic provides a good snapshot of what the mass market is doing.
Now, if you looked at a similar chart of SAI’s Twitter-referrals, you would see enormous growth over the past year. But this is because SAI is mainly read by the tech community.
If you looked at the broader Business Insider traffic, meanwhile, what you would see is this:
- Stories that appeal to the tech community go bananas on Twitter–and barely register on Facebook
- Stories that appeal to the mass market do much better on Facebook than they do on Twitter.
- Stories aimed at our Wall Street and finance readers have enormous readership–but much lower Twitter referrals than our tech stories do.
Our own experience, in other words, suggests that Twitter is still mainly a tech phenomenon, albeit a profoundly powerful one, while Facebook has totally gone mainstream.
(For another indicator of this, check out our “Hive“, which filters Twitter to see what stories smart business readers are Tweeting around right now. The “general” section of the Hive is dominated by tech stories, which shows how huge tech users are as a percentage of rabid Twitter users. The “media” and “finance” sections, meanwhile, have devoted Twitter communities of their own, but they’re much smaller).
BUT WHAT ABOUT LADY GAGA?
But that’s ridiculous, you say. Of course Twitter has “gone mainstream.” Look how many followers Britney Spears has. Look how many Lady Gaga has. Look how many Ashton Kutcher has. These are mainstream celebrities, and Twitter users are NUTS about them.
Well, yes, sort of. Lady Gaga just became the queen of Twitter–the most followed person on the service–by amassing 5.7 million followers.
To most of us schmoes on Twitter, 5.7 million followers is an incomprehensibly large number–beyond most people’s wildest dreams. But compared to the number of global citizens who are desperate to follow Lady Gaga’s every twitch, it’s actually a relatively small number. (To put the number in context, according to Wikipedia, Lady Gaga has sold 15 million albums and 51 million singles as of August 2010. As SAI reader @frumpy notes, she also has 17 million Facebook “likes.”). And the same goes for Britney Spears, Ashton Kutcher, and most of the other Twitter bigs.
Lastly, take a look at the US traffic to Twitter.com and Facebook.com over the past year. Twitter’s traffic is basically flat (up 17%–which is small for a service with Twitter’s relatively low level of mass-market penetration). Facebook’s traffic, meanwhile, has continued to grow strongly, despite having a vastly larger user base.
Yes, most people who use Twitter use it via applications. But those applications also spray traffic at Twitter.com. And people use Facebook via applications, too. And that hasn’t stopped the growth of Facebook.com.
WHAT THE PROBLEM IS — AND HOW TWITTER CAN FIX IT
Now, why hasn’t Twitter really gone mainstream? And what can the company do to get over this hurdle?
We think there are three reasons, all of which the company can address.
- First, going mainstream does take time, and Twitter is still a very young company. In a few years, if Twitter addresses the problems below, the service may be able to command much more influence in the mass market than it does today. (Facebook is a few years older than Twitter, and Facebook has grown tremendously over the past couple of years).
- Second, Twitter has yet to start designing its products and communications for the mass market–instead, it continues to behave as though mainstream consumers care about the same language and issues that the tech community is obsessed with (which they don’t). This week’s email to users explaining why a Twitter tech change broke some third-party Twitter apps like TweetDeck is a classic example. The email was clearly written by technology folks, with little appreciation for how mystifying and arcane it would seem to mass market readers. (“OAuth” is not a term that would ever appear in a mass-market communication–because mass-market readers’ eyes would have glazed over before they reached the end of the word. Many tech folks snicker at the stupidity of average people who they admit that they don’t know what a “browser” is. Wiser tech folks, however, realise that the way to win over these mass-market people is to speak to them in a language they understand.) Twitter could easily fix this problem by hiring mass-market communications folks, the same way Facebook did.
- Third, and most challenging, Twitter requires set-up and customisation to make it useful–and mass-market consumers are lazy and don’t like to customise. This is the “clock flashing on the VCR” problem. It’s the reason such a small percentage of people use services like iGoogle and MyYahoo, despite their obvious benefits. It’s also a problem that is incomprehensible to many tech folks, who LOVE to customise. In a nutshell, unlike tech folks, mainstream consumers value simplicity and convenience above all else–and, right now, Twitter is still relatively hard to understand. This is another area in which Twitter should be able to radically improve, if it focuses on the problem.
In our opinion, these three factors are why Twitter has yet to be more fully embraced by the mass market.
Facebook began as a service for normal people, not tech people, and it has remained that way ever since. (This is part of Mark Zuckerberg’s genius, by the way: He, himself, is an uber-geek, but he has an excellent grasp of mass-market product design. And he has hired a communications team that is laser-focused on mass-market concerns).
Twitter, meanwhile, began as a tech project, and although it has enjoyed some mass market adoption (Lady Gaga, et al), it hasn’t really gone mainstream.
When will we know that Twitter has “crossed the chasm” into the mass market, the way that AOL, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and other global tech brands did? Most likely, when the tech folks who are now obsessed with it start pissing and moaning and saying they’re not going to use it anymore. A couple of years ago, when Facebook really took off, tech folks started threatening to quit the service. Facebook was wise enough to ignore them–and it now has more than 500 million users worldwide.
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