Update: This post recently appeared on Venture Beat: http://venturebeat.com/2011/11/10/why-twitter-has-a-problem-going-mainstream/

Nick Bilton of the New York Times recently wrote about why Facebook works for all while Twitter works for some:

…And, like my family, she [his sister] never really took to Twitter. When I asked her last year why she rarely Tweeted, she said, “Twitter is too confusing.”

That complaint, which I have often heard from others who work outside the technology industry, never made sense to me. That is, until now.

This learning curve is one that I’ve often thought about when thinking about the barriers to mainstream adoption for Twitter.

But I think there are more fundamental problems that could trip Twitter up on the road to mainstream adoption.

First, consider the following stats:

  • In a recent study by Yahoo Research, 50 percent of the most influential tweets consumed are reportedly generated from just 20,000 elite users — though these posts do not always originate from these 20k accounts.
  • Nielsen estimated that user-retention rates were around 40 percent.
    This, more than the number of total Twitter users is the most critical of numbers in this discussion.  The media attention around Twitter and friends and family “you should check out Twitter!” is enough to compel many to check out this Twitter thing, but judging by the stats cited above many have no idea what to do with it when they get there.

To be sure, Twitter is a modern day sensation, experiencing hyper-growth to the 50 million users it has to date, helping to topple governments the world-over (Malcolm Gladwell’s speculation notwithstanding).  But the holy grail of any consumer product or service is mainstream adoption.  50 million users is nice, but [Facebook’s] 800 million is nicer.  Mainstream adoption brings with it the kind of industry leadership position that affords the ability to better stave off disruptive newcomers and the potential to expand into new areas.

So Twitter has two key questions to answer for the mainstream audience (think non-techie):

  • Why should I sign up?

And, when I get there:

  • What should I do with it?

First, why should I sign up?

When Apple first launched the iPad they were introducing an entirely new computing paradigm to consumers.  What do I need a tablet for?  How do I use it?  They were faced with a significant education/evangelism challenge that they had to nail if they were going to see significant consumer uptake.

They met the challenge by showing users of the iPad in various users scenarios—using email, browsing the web, buying books—so as to educate the market about how to use the new device.

It might be time for Twitter to do the same.  Maybe Twitter should develop some TV and traditional print ads that show the mainstream audience how Twitter could be used to enhance their life.

Different use cases could be used to appeal to the distinct kinds of users:

  • The ‘Inform Me’ User:
    This user wants deeper and more timely information on the world around him.  He wants links to content that go beyond what the traditional television news and his same tired bookmarks can provide him (but may not know that Twitter could be the answer to his quest).I had my own aha moment as to the power of Twitter to inform the night Bin Laden’s death was announced.  I was messing around on Twitter while watching a baseball game when the news broke on Twitter that the President was to announce Bin Laden had been killed.  While tuning in to the mainstream news immediately after this occurred, it was clear they were getting their information from Twitter themselves.This situation seems tailor made as one of the scenarios Twitter could feature in a TV commercial.  It couldn’t have been scripted better.  The news broke on Twitter.  Someone on the ground in Pakistan unknowingly tweeted about the raid as it was happening.  Commentary and analysis from numerous sources followed and the mainstream media clearly fell short of what Twitter could do in both speed and breadth of information.  There are numerous ways a clever ad could work in a variety of ways the ‘Informed User’ could benefit from signing up to Twitter.  For a percentage of ‘Informed Users’ Twitter is the exact thing they have been looking for, they just don’t know it yet.
  • The ‘Social’ User: The social user is a socially active online user who is always looking for ways to stay in closer touch with friends.  His portion of the ad should, of course, show how Twitter can enhance his personal relationships and stay in closer touch with friends.
  • The Celebrity Watcher:  Some of Twitter’s users with the biggest follower counts are celebrities (think Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian…).  The celebrity watcher is enamored with connecting with celebrities and their portion of the TV ad could show how they could hear directly from their favorite personalities.
  • The Learn From the Experts User: This user might be delighted to find out he can learn directly from the experts in his field, hear their take on industry developments or read what the experts are reading.

Of course there is crossover– users who fall into multiple categories–but that’s the beauty of a commercial that would address multiple user scenarios and is just another argument for why a TV ad showing the multiple use cases makes sense.

So that’s the ‘why should I sign up’? problem.  The ‘what should I do once I get there?’ is a whole ‘nother blog post, but it starts with better guidance to the user once they log in for the first time than Twitter is offering now (grouping interesting users by category is not enough).  And, by educating users via TV ads about what they can get out of Twitter before they sign up will help them to pursue what they are looking for once they sign up.


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