313 Million Users Can't Save Twitter from Itself


Twitter is poised to become a very different website.

After 10 years, the social media site remains an enigma to business markets and a bit of a mystery to users as well. Experts agree Twitter's moribund growth and persistent identity crisis mean its future lies in being acquired — and that means change.

Rumours of a possible sale to a tech megacorp nudged Twitter's (TWTR) share price up in recent weeks, but that came to an end Thursday as the stock plummeted on news neither Google nor Disney are interested, and that Apple isn't likely to make a bid.

Whoever takes it over has a real problem on their hands, says Markus Giesler, associate professor of marketing at Toronto's Schulich School of Business.

"The big elephant in the room ... is that Twitter itself doesn't really understand its business yet," he said.

"That clearly shows up in how investors have looked at it. [CEO] Jack Dorsey has been struggling to define the company. And investors have, in a way, punished Twitter for its lack of corporate identity."

Users 'speaking to themselves'

Worse, its users aren't even sure.

"From a consumer standpoint, it's a little like a promise that remains unfulfilled," said Giesler, who also heads up Schulich's Big Design Lab, researching customer experience design. "[Users are] trying to inject some meaning ... into an experience that remains rather undefined at this point."

Social media is about having a conversation, "and right now Twitter isn't really enabling this in the sense that most of the Twitter users out there are speaking to themselves," Giesler said. Only a tiny percentage of people on Twitter get Kardashian-level exposure; most are sending tweets out to a small number of followers who may or may not be online at the time.

The company's attempt to woo buyers is perhaps a way to get the marketplace to define it, essentially: you tell us what we are.

Disney might say Twitter is about video streaming, and it could use the platform in conjunction with its sports and entertainment properties (which include ESPN, Pixar and Lucasfilm). Or Google could say Twitter is about data, and combine the site with its existing data resources.

'Why @twitter?'

Either of those acquisitions would have made sense to Giesler.

The one possibility he doesn't understand involves cloud-computing company Salesforce — the only major player still in the game.

But technology analyst Mira V. Perry sees the logic.

"Salesforce lost out on the gold mine of business data with the failed LinkedIn acquisition attempt," the analyst with market intelligence firm IDC Canada said. "Twitter isn't an equal alternative for business data by any means, but with continued reliable usage by Salesforce's primary market of interest — business professionals — it can enhance their product portfolio."

Salesforce's "chief digital evangelist" Vala Afshar hinted the company might be interested in buying Twitter in a Sept. 23 tweet that began: "Why @twitter?"

But both Afshar and Twitter CEO Dorsey have been silent since Thursday's report.

Twitterverse not expanding

Twitter devotees appreciate the site for its immediacy and its ability to act as a platform for social good. Journalists prize Twitter as both a source and distribution platform for breaking news. And essential services, like police and fire departments, have used the site to efficiently communicate emergency information in real time.

Despite all that, Giesler says the platform "has to change."

Twitter has failed to meet growth expectations, stagnating at around 313 million active monthly users after 10 years, while younger competitors like Snapchat and Instagram outpace it.

"Further evidence that people aren't really excited about what Twitter does and is," Giesler said.

Twitter has also been dogged by well-documented user complaints about harassment and abuse on the site as it tries to balance free speech with user security and privacy.

"Twitter's culture is perhaps its worst enemy," said Ramona Pringle, an assistant professor in new media at Ryerson University and CBC columnist. "We have seen so many high-profile people leave the platform citing toxicity, hostility and flat-out hate, and there has been ongoing criticism that the company hasn't taken enough steps to prevent that kind of harassment."

Analyst Perry says "many believe Twitter, in its current form, has peaked."

So what form will it take?

That's unclear, though the site has recently had success with live streaming the U.S. presidential debate and some NFL games.

"That model of live streaming content with an additional layer of fan engagement — especially for communal, collective live events — is really their strong suit, and that's where their value lies," Pringle said.

"They're the go-to platform for live public commentary and discussion — that is a real value for companies struggling with audience engagement and distribution," she said. "Right now, they are able to service a whole collection of different outlets, from news to sports and beyond, and the question is, is there one specific company for whom what they provide brings enough value?"

Markus Giesler

Markus Giesler draws on concepts from economics, technology studies, and sociology to inform his research in marketing. He determines how ideas and things (products, services, experiences, technological innovations, intellectual property, brands, etc.) are made valuable over time, with research focused on improving marketing strategy through an understanding of markets as evolving social systems. Giesler's research has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the European Research Council (ERC) and published in top-tier academic journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Marketing. Giesler has an extensive entertainment industry background. He founded his own record label at age 17 and has worked in various production and marketing responsibilities for over a decade. He lives in Toronto, Canada.