How are we to judge social juggernauts such as Twitter anyway? If we go by Wall Street, the longtime microblogging service is a miserable failure for having “just” 288 million active users at the end of 2014. While most publishers would give their left arm for that kind of massive engagement, Twitter is judged by a different standard: Facebook and its billion-plus user base. Twitter is damned if they do (grow users without revenues) or damned if they don’t (grow revenues without users).
And even when Twitter turns around its business, nearly doubling revenues in its most recent quarter to $479 million — with a profit to boot (if you don’t count one-time stock expenses) — there’s still grousing by some journalists who say Twitter isn’t driving enough referral traffic to their stories.
The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently did an in-depth analysis of his engagement on Twitter by looking at the stats surrounding what he thought was an enticing tweet. He found, disappointingly, that only one percent of the people who saw that tweet actually clicked on the link, even though it received more than 1,200 retweets and had upwards of 155,260 impressions. The link, of course, was to Thompson’s story on The Atlantic’s site. As he put it, “So, 99 percent of my labor on Twitter went to Twitter, and 1 percent went to The Atlantic. That’s not a very good deal for our boss!”
Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile tweeted the moral of Thompson’s story: that there is “effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading.”
However it’s important to remember that the frustration with Twitter engagement and branding is different for different users. Journalists interact with and use Twitter in one way, brands and publishers another. Building a brand or following, or attracting the influence of “tastemakers” who could help a tweet reach a wider audience, is strategic for both groups. So even if Thompson’s tweet had a poor click-through rate, no one can deny the power of those tweet impressions. He also offered up the kind of tweet that’s useful for people on the go or those who aren’t necessarily interested in reading the whole article (as upsetting as it probably is to most writers, sometimes a headline fills the reader’s need).
Thompson tweeted: “Almost every major patent concept from the 1930s was in chemistry. Today, all software.” And he included a visual to illustrate his point.
Arguably, that is a pretty satisfying tweet all on its own.
But brands are pretty happy getting engagement on Twitter without clickthroughs. Digiday’s John McDermott responded to Thompson’s story by noting that a Simply Measured report found that “engagement with tweets from [top] brands increased by 85 percent in the last three months of 2014.” Plus, out of the Top 100 brands, the volume of tweets increased by 11% and follower counts were up 38% — all likely due to the more prominent engagement buttons on Twitter.
Perhaps anticipating letdown at its poor user growth, Twitter announced a slew of new offerings ahead of its fourth quarter earnings. Users can now take advantage of group messaging, utilize a new in-site video recording service up to 30 seconds (compared with Vine’s six-second loop), observe the tweets they may have missed while they were away, and — for new or potential users — get insight into top tweets on the revamped Twitter homepage.
Twitter also recently announced that Twitter ads would be featured outside of Twitter for the first time, on Flipboard and Yahoo Japan. The new partnership effectively helps Twitter make money off of non-users. Although it’s tough to say now how effective this collaboration might be (don’t forget Twitter will have to split the revenue), it’s positive news on the advertising business front.
Maybe it’s time we just face the facts: Twitter is not another Facebook, nor should it strive to be. It’s a great communication platform for reporters, publishers, brands and anyone who wants to help shape the conversation about what’s happening now (or on TV). Even if USA Today’s “For the Win” blog has dropped the Twitter share button on its stories, that doesn’t mean they won’t be present on Twitter. It just means that the value of a tweet is more than a tally of clickthroughs.