Putting the best face forward at Twitter.

tdWhen business results look disappointing, one can certainly sympathize with the efforts of company management to explain it away in the most innocuous of terms.

This may be what’s behind Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s description of his company’s 2016 performance as “transformative” – whatever that means.

Falling short of industry analysts’ forecasts yet again, Twitter experienced a revenue increase of only about 1% year-over-year during 2016.

Monthly active users didn’t look much better either, with the total number barely budging.

While I have no actual proof, one explanation of tepid active user growth may be that Twitter became the de facto “place for politics” in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election — which didn’t actually end in November and continues apace even today.

Simply put, for many people, politics isn’t their cup of tea — certainly not on a 24/7/365 diet, ad nauseum.

Quite telling, too, was the fact that advertising revenue showed an absolute decline during the 4th Quarter, dropping below $640 million for the period.

Even more disturbing for investors, the company’s explanation about the steps Twitter is taking to address its performance shortfalls smacks of vacuousness, to wit this statement from CEO Dorsey:

“While revenue growth continues to lag audience growth, we are applying the same focused approach that drove audience growth to our revenue product portfolio, focusing on our strengths and the real-time nature of our service.”

“This will take time, but we’re moving fast to show results,” Dorsey continued, rather unconvincingly.

One bright spot in the otherwise disappointing company results is that revenues from international operations – about 39% of total overall revenues – climbed ~12% during the year, as compared to a ~5% revenue drop domestically.

Overall however, industry watchers are predicting more in the way of bad rather than good news in 2017. Principal analyst Debra Aho Williamson at digital media market research firm eMarketer put it this way:

“Twitter is losing traction fast. It is starting to shed once-promising products such as Vine, and [to] sell off parts of its business such as its Fabric app development platform.  At the same time, some surveys indicate that Twitter is becoming less integral to advertisers’ spending plans.  That doesn’t bode well for future ad revenue growth.”

With a prognosis like that, can the next big drop in Twitter’s share price be far behind?

What do you think?

“Dying on the Vine”: Why the video sharing service is now history.

vineRemember back in 2012 when Twitter introduced its Vine video sharing service?

Back then, observers were positively breathless in their accolades for the service, with some positing that Vine represented some sort of tipping point in the world of instant communications.

A little more than four years later … and as of November 1, Vine has just been shuttered. How is it that such a vaunted social media platform went from de rigeur to rigor mortis in such a short time?

There are several key reasons why.

Time and place: The year 2012 was a perfect time to launch Vine, as it coincided with when many companies and brands were shifting their focus towards video communications.  At the time, short-form video was a novelty, making it a kind of dog whistle in the market.  But Instagram, newly acquired by Facebook, swooped in and made a big splash, too, while Snapchat attracted younger audiences.  What was Vine’s response to these competitor moves?  If there was much of any, no one seems to have noticed.

Competing … with yourself: Strange as it may seem, Twitter itself ended up competing with Vine in 2015, launching its own branded video playback capabilities.  When something like that happens, what’s the purpose of the older brand that’s doing the same thing?  Twitter’s simultaneous foray into live-streaming was a further blow to a brand that simply couldn’t compete with these newer video services introduced by Vine’s very own parent company.

Commercial viability? — What commercial viability? In all its time on the scene, Vine never figured out a way to sell advertising on its network.  It had a good germ of an idea in sponsored content, but never seemed to capitalize on the opportunities that presented, either.

Knowing your audience: From the outset, Vine attracted a fairly unique and crowd of users, such as people involved in the hip-hop music scene.  It was vastly different from the typical user base in social media – and yet Vine never did all that much to support these users.  As a result, there was little brand affinity to keep them close when the next “bright, shiny object” came their way.

In the social media space, the rise and fall of platforms can happen with amazing speed. Unlike some other platforms, Vine was a big hit from the get-go … but perhaps that turned out to be a double-edged sword.  Vine never did figure out a way to “mature” with its audiences – which eventually left it behind.

In the end, Vine went out not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Twitter is looking more and more like the old, hidebound player in social platforms.

tWe’ve been hearing for a while now that Twitter’s go-go-days might be in the rear-view mirror.

But even so, the latest growth forecast for the company still seems pretty shocking for a “new media” participant.

In its most recent forecast of Twitter usage in the United States, eMarketer has lowered its projections of Twitter growth in usage to essentially “treading water” status.

More specifically, digital data research company eMarketer forecasts that by the end of the year, ~52 million U.S. consumers will be accessing their Twitter accounts at least once per month.

That will represent just a 2% increase for the year.

Long-term growth prospects for Twitter don’t look any better. At one point, eMarketer was forecasting growth estimates of nearly 14 million new Twitter users by 2020.  But today, that forecast has been downgraded significantly to only about 3.5 million new users.

In the world of social media platforms, such paltry growth expectations mean that Twitter’s share of domestic social network users will continue to decline. (It’s at around 28% now, which is already a bit of a drop from last year.)

What’s making Twitter seem like such a “passé player” in the go-go world of social media? Oscar Orozco, an analyst at eMarketer, sums up its challenges succinctly:

“Twitter continues to struggle with growing its user base because new users often find the product unwieldy and difficult to navigate, which makes it challenging to find long-term value in being an active user. Also, [Twitter’s] new product initiatives have had little impact in attracting new users.”

Who’s eating into Twitter’s market presence? How about Snapchat and Instagram, for starters.  A host of other messaging apps are also hurting Twitter’s growth prospects.

It hasn’t helped that Twitter has been struggling mightily to monetize its service offering. While it has made valiant efforts to do so, Facebook and LinkedIn have done a more effective job of leveraging their massive user data into attracting advertising dollars.

Facebook is a cash machine … LinkedIn does a respectable job … while Twitter seems almost hopeless by comparison.

After flying high for so long – even to the degree that many companies still speak about social media as one mashup term “Facebook-Twitter-LinkedIn,” Twitter’s decline is all the more surprising.  Poignant, even.

For many people, what’s “breaking news” isn’t breaking on traditional news media outlets.

First it was Jon Stewart. Now it’s social media. 

(AP)
(AP)

If you suspect that Americans are increasingly getting their news from someplace other than the standard TV/cable, print and online news outlets, you’re right on the money.

In fact, research conducted by the Pew Center in association with the Knight Foundation during 2015 reveals that the share of people for whom Facebook and Twitter serve as a source of news is continuing to rise.

More specifically, nearly two thirds of the 2,000+ Americans age 18 and older surveyed by Pew (~63%) reported that they’re getting news reporting from Facebook.

A similar percentage reported receiving news from Twitter as well.

That compares with ~52% reporting that they received news from Twitter back in 2013 … and ~47% from Facebook.

Although both of these social networks now have the same portion of people getting news from these two sources, the Pew research discovered some nuanced differences as to their strengths.

smnA far bigger portion of people follow “breaking news” on Twitter compared to Facebook (~59% versus ~31%), which underscores Twitter’s strength in providing immediate “as-it-happens” coverage and commentary on live events.

Seeing such behaviors, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that both social networks have been implementing more initiatives that strengthen their positions as news sources even more:

  • Facebook has launched Instant Articles, a functionality that allows media companies to publish stories directly to the Facebook platform instead of linking to outside websites.
  • Facebook has also introduced a new Trending sidebar that allows users to filter news by major topic categories such as sports, entertainment, politics, technology and science.
  • Twitter has introduced live events to its roster, thanks to its purchase of the live video-streaming app Periscope.
  • A related Twitter initiative, dubbed Moments (aka: Project Lightning), allows anyone – even a person without a Twitter account – to view ongoing feeds of tweets, images and videos pertaining to live events.

According to Pew, news exposure is on social media roughly equal among all demographic factors including gender, ethnicity and income. The one exception, of course, is age.

All of these developments underscore the fact that the “traditional” TV, print and online outlets are no longer dominant when it comes to news consumption. And it’s highly unlikely that the trend will ever be reversed, either.

Twitter’s Continuing Monetization Challenge

Press reports have been pretty consistent over the past year or so about the underwhelming financial performance of Twitter.  Here’s the trend line for Twitter shares of stock since the beginning of 2014:

 

Twitter share price trend

 

… And beyond the financial performance, I’ve been writing about Twitter’s fundamental business challenges off and on for well over five years now.

While Twitter undoubtedly has its place in the social realm — its place in “breaking news” is a biggie — it remains a frustrating platform for advertisers, which is one reason Twitter’s business model has turned out to be less effective than Facebook’s.

Recent stats from eMarketer reveal that over 50 million Internet users in the United States are accessing their Twitter accounts via any device at least monthly.

That equates to about fifth of U.S. Internet users — and nearly three in ten people active on social networks.

So … this means that many people are seeing ads on Twitter. And that’s confirmed through an evaluation conducted by Cowen & Company which finds that well over half of U.S. adult Twitter users are e encountering ads on their Twitter feed at least every 10 or 20 tweets.

Predictably, most of the advertising pertains to retail, app installations and travel. Those are pretty relevant as broad advertising categories.

It’s just … many Twitter users aren’t finding the ads effective.  Here’s what Cowen’s findings show in terms of user feelings about Twitter advertising:

  • Ads on Twitter are relevant and/or insightful: ~3%
  • Ads are OK: ~26%
  • Ads are not really relevant: ~45%
  • Ads are usually a poor fit: ~14%

These results suggest that advertisers need to improve their targeting capabilities significantly if they wish to reach the right audience segments with relevant messages.

More fundamentally, current attitudes about Twitter advertising pose continuing challenges for Twitter as it attempts to further-monetize its platform. The tepid performance of Twitter shares since the beginning of 2014 underscores how the company continues to cast about for answers to that fundamental challenge.  I wonder when (or if) the company will ever figure it all out.

Online customer care: Is retailer responsiveness going in opposite directions at once?

waiting for a responseAn interesting shift is happening in online customer care:  Response times are improving on social media while they’re getting worse in e-mail communications.

That’s what a new analysis by customer interactive software provider Eptica, as outlined in its 2015 Multichannel Customer Experience Study, is showing.

What Eptica has found is that retailers’ response times to answer customer queries posted on Twitter have improved dramatically in the past year.

Today, a customer query is being answered in an average time of a little over 4 hours.

That’s more than twice fast as in Eptica’s 2014 study, when the average response time clocked in at just over 13 hours.

In addition, the number of tweets successfully handled by retailers stands at around 43%, which is a full ten percentage points higher than what Eptica found in its 2014 study.

While more improvement is needed, the trend line is looking pretty good.  And it makes sense, since the “immediacy” of social media platforms is where many people believe a quick response should be forthcoming.

Crossing Lines

lines crossingBut while customer care response times via social media are improving, the opposite appears to be the case in e-mail customer service – and startlingly so.

Eptica’s evaluation shows that the average time it takes to respond to customer service queries submitted via e-mail is significantly longer than just a year ago.

Then, the average response time was ~36 hours.  Now, it’s nearly 44 hours – or nearly two days.

And while more e-mail customer service queries are successfully handled via e-mail when compared to tweets (~58% versus ~43%), that figure is worsening as well.  Last year, the percentage of e-queries successfully handled was ~63%.

More broadly, there continues to be a pretty significant disconnect between the “ideal” and the “reality” when it comes to online customer care and service.

Nearly all retailers provide an e-mail channel through which consumers may contact them.  But … less than three-fourths of them actually answer the e-mail messages they receive.  Moreover, the responses they provide – often automatically generated – don’t answer the customer’s question.

For a consumer with an issue or a concern, there’s little difference between getting no answer at all and receiving one that’s a “non-response response” in answer to a specific query.  Both seem to convey this message, “We don’t much care, because your issue just isn’t that important to us.”

Turning to social media, nearly 90% of major retailers have a presence on Twitter.  There, the “ignore” factor is even bigger than with e-mail:  ~45% don’t respond to their customers’ queries.

So while the social media figures certainly look better now than they did a year ago, it turns out there’s still a good ways needed to go.

Burgeoning social activity is no reason for retailers to take their foot off the gas pedal when it comes to supporting their customers via e-mail.  E-mail may not be the most exciting channel, but it’s the way millions of consumers prefer to communicate with retailers, companies and brands.  It’s counterproductive and foolish to diss them or treat them like second-class citizens.

In my own personal experience I’ve experienced the exact dynamics as described by Eptica at work – and I’m not afraid to name names.  TruGreen® Lawn Care did a stellar job of avoiding responding to my e-mail and phone queries … but it took less than two hours to get a response from someone at the firm after I posted a not-so-happy tweet about the company’s (lack of) responsiveness.

For me, the “public shaming” aspects of Twitter turned out to be far more of a squeaky wheel than the “private pleading” of an e-mail or phone message.

Do you have personal anecdotes of your own about the dynamics of online customer care?  Please share your thoughts and experiences with other readers here.

Bird dropping: Instagram overtakes Twitter in the social media derby.

Instagram logo

It seems like the jockeying for position among social networks is never-ending.

The latest case in point:  Instagram, which is presently the fastest growing social media network in the United States.

According to the latest figures released by digital market research company eMarketer, as of February 2015 Instagram now has over 64 million users in America.

That’s a ~60% increase in just one year, and it puts Instagram in third place among all social networks, surpassing Twitter for the first time.

Not only that, eMarketer forecasts that Instagram will add more than 10 million additional users in the United States this year:

  • Facebook: ~157 million U.S. users forecast in 2015
  • LinkedIn: ~115 million
  • Instagram: ~78 million
  • Twitter: ~53 million
  • Pinterest: ~47 million
  • Tumblr: ~20 million

       (Source:  eMarketer and LinkedIn, February 2015.)

eMarketer also forecasts that Twitter will continue to fall further behind Instagram in the upcoming years, since Twitter’s annual growth is expected to be in only the single digits throughout the rest of the decade.

Based on the overall American population, Instagram has now a market penetration of nearly 25%.  Of course, that’s well behind Facebook, which has nearly 50% penetration.

Untitled-1But Instagram’s user base is skewed heavily towards teens and millennials – people between the ages of 12 and 34.  This makes Instagram a bit more of a threat to LinkedIn and even Facebook than you might think at first.

Facebook’s user base has been skewing older in recent years.  If those trends continue, we could see a measurable drop-off in Facebook’s share of users, with a corresponding rise in Instagram’s penetration.

Of course, we mustn’t forget that Facebook was the social media network of choice for younger people at one time, too.  After all, it got its start on college campuses.  But now that Facebook has solid adoption among older Americans (age 40 and over), no longer does it seem like a “cool” network for some millennials and teens.

So it would be foolish to assume that Instagram is a slam-dunk to continue to be the “network of choice” for younger people in the years hence.  One never knows what new network might suddenly appear on the horizon and capture their hearts.

Still, Instagram’s rise has been noteworthy.  And it certainly puts the lie to the notion that there wasn’t room for a new network to enter the increasingly crowded social media space and make a big splash.

Personally as an “aging boomer,” I don’t have an Instagram account, and neither do most of my acquaintances.  What about your own personal experience or professional experiences with this network?