Business development · 16 March 2016

Happy birthday Twitter, but where does it go from here?

Twitter birds
Twitter turns ten years old this month

When then 29 year-old software developer Jack Dorsey tapped out the first, simple message using just 140 characters on a his newly launched website on 21 March 2006, it’s likely he didn’t intend to change the way the world communicates for good.

A year on from Dorsey’s first – “just setting up my twttr” –  message on what would later be called Twitter, the site’s users were sending 5,000 tweets a day. By 2010, the service was boasting 50m daily tweets and by the time of the company’s initial public offering in November 2013, 500m tweets a day were being posted into the Twittersphere.

Since then, the social platform has hit a snag. It’s famously fast-growing user base has stalled, whilst 2015 saw Twitter’s share price fall by half as the site increasingly struggled to monetise its activities. As Twitter’s tenth birthday approaches, then, it finds itself on the brink of something of an identity crisis, on top of day-to-day challenges.

For a social media platform to have lasted an entire decade, on a world wide web that is merely a quarter century old itself, is no mean feat. But, if Twitter is to remain relevant in it’s teenage years, it faces an important question – what is the point of Twitter? Is it helpful or divertive? Serious or senseless? Should it set its sights on fun and frivolity or chart a course towards world domination? Should it content itself with providing an elitist pastime or aspire to become a real democratising force for change?

Whilst many millions of Twitter disciples will sing its praises aloud from the rooftops, many millions more denigrate the service as a confusing realm of egotism and shameless self-aggrandisement, feeding people’s narcissism and paranoia. Comedian Stewart Lee once spoke of Twitter as “a government surveillance operation run by gullible volunteers, a Stasi for the Angry Birds generation”.

For businesses, Twitter can be a blessing and a curse in equal measure. It has no doubt made firms more accountable, inviting questions and flak from consumers that’d rather be avoided.

Global companies can be publicly shamed by ill-advised tweets – the first announcement by BP after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico providing a good example. Its understated tweet – “We regretfully admit that something has happened off the Gulf Coast, more to follow” – quickly went viral, beginning a tirade of negative media coverage and a subsequent period of decline that saw BP sack its CEO and divest $38bn of its assets to cover the costs of the spill.

Brands frequently misjudge Twitter as a marketing tool too. One US pizza company famously used a public campaign to tackle domestic abuse to promote its products, whilst fashion designer Kenneth Cole tweeted during the 2011 Egyptian revolution: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumour is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.”

Yet Twitter has been and will continue to be a brilliant and unique way to market a brand, enabling businesses to open conversations with customers and communicate with them in a more “human” way. For small firms in particular, a smart Twitter strategy can create a buzz around products and services very quickly, for free.

Last year, however, a survey conducted by media consultancy Deal With The Media found that in Britain, the majority of small business owners struggle to make Twitter work for them. Two-thirds admitted that their social media strategy provided no evidence of a positive impact on revenue, whilst 62 per cent said that using platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube had bought little success.

When it comes to social media output, quality beats quantity every time. Small business owners should be careful not to try to cover too many bases at once, focussing social strategies and budgets on platforms and campaigns that can most likely bring in repeat customers and guarantee sales.

Whether we are witnessing the slow decline of social media behemoths like Twitter or not, its impact on the media, culture, politics and business over the last ten years is undeniable. Whether or not they’d like to admit it, the fiercest Luddites are living in a media-age created and enforced by Twitter, despite the growing disillusionment surrounding the service itself. The next decade looks uncertain for Twitter, but there can be little doubt that it’ll continue to provide an invaluable marketing method.

Read on for five proven strategies to achieve growth as a sole trader.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Fred Heritage was previously deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London.

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