Why Twitter will never be Facebook (and that's OK)

Facebook is the clear king of social, and it's unlikely that Twitter will ever seriously infringe on its throne. The fact is that Twitter shouldn't try to compete with mainstream rivals, such as Facebook — and social media users shouldn't view the two companies in the same light. Here's why.

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Credit: Marisa Allegra Williams

Twitter lost about 27 percent of its market value, or more than $9 billion, last week. Critics are beating the drums of war, of course, but Twitter has been tested before and has proven its ability to endure. The company faced investor backlash last year, and its stock hit an all-time low. High-level executive turnover is one of the company's hallmarks. It has struggled to tell a clear story about what exactly Twitter is and why people should use it.

And yet, despite the problems, more than 302 million people use Twitter at least once a month, according to the company's latest earnings report. This user base alone is enough to secure the company's status in the uppermost echelon of social media, but that prominence comes with some significant challenges. For example, Twitter is one of the biggest platforms in social media, so it will always be compared to Facebook, a much larger competitor.

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However, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Twitter will never overtake Facebook and dominate the social media landscape. Facebook brings in almost 10 times the annual advertising revenue of Twitter, and its monthly user base is nearly five times larger. In both of these cases, the difference is one of millions and billions. Facebook is in a league of its own, and the burden on Twitter could be somewhat lessened if the two weren't consistently compared.

Twitter's 'weirdness' is a social media differentiator

Twitter and Facebook are clearly different, but they're still often seen as equals. So does Twitter have to become even more of a social media powerhouse, like Facebook, to thrive? It might be good for Twitter in the long run if it required slightly less explanation for new users, and changes in this regard could lead to greater luck with grandparents (and investors), but mainstream adoption has never been Twitter's ultimate goal and never will be.

"Twitter is always going to be a little weird," says David Berkowitz, CMO at creative tech agency MRY. "If it stops being weird, it's going to be just like everything else."

That perceived "weirdness" comes at least in part from its top executives' seeming lack of decisiveness on exactly what Twitter is or wants to be.

During the past four years, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo described the company in five notable ways: as "three geometrically eccentric circles;" a "global town square;" a public and real-time communication platform; "indispensable companion to life in the moment;" and the "world's largest information network."

Twitter's ambiguous value proposition

Twitter's leaders aren't the only people who have trouble nailing down a clear value statement; the majority of Twitter users would undoubtedly describe the platform in different terms and measures. 

"Twitter has always had that challenge of requiring a little bit of extra explaining," Berkowitz says. "It's not just for one thing, there's a whole language around Twitter that people need to learn." 

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That's a challenge Berkowitz says, but it's not a unique one. "The first time anyone over 30 goes on Snapchat the typical response I've seen is the brain just short circuits. That hasn't stopped Snapchat from being phenomenally successful."

Twitter has obvious strengths and weaknesses

Twitter should focus less on addressing its deficiencies and more on promoting the strengths and defining characteristics of its platform, Berkowitz says. "There are a lot of things going for it that make it different than everything else out there," including real-time conversations, spontaneity and a legacy in mobile, Berkowitz says.

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Twitter has sway with celebrities, personalities and other persons of interest, making it a valuable tool for people who want to learn more about their favorite authors, chefs, school mascots or anyone else who draws their attention. Twitter has also proven to an invaluable tool for the media, which frequently uses Twitter to break news and engage audiences.

However, Twitter's ability to target ads based on demographics is woefully lacking compared to Facebook, (again, there's that comparison) but that doesn't concern Berkowitz, who says reaching scale at the right moment is equally important to marketers.

Twitter also does real-time communications better than anyone else, according to Berkowitz. Using Twitter to reach users during a narrow window of time for a specific action like tuning in to a TV show, buying a movie ticket or setting a DVR are all marketing opportunities that work well on Twitter. "All this becomes incredibly powerful and it's hard to think of anyone that can do that right now better than Twitter."

This story, "Why Twitter will never be Facebook (and that's OK)" was originally published by CIO.