Over the last few months, an avalanche of people have joined Twitter thanks to some celebrity endorsements and mainstream media coverage. This influx challenged the Twitter team to make sure the application could keep running with a huge increase in traffic. They have done a great job with this.
This also meant that an army of new Twitter users were working to integrate themselves into the Twitter universe. They needed basic training on the Twitter features and use, and they needed an introduction to the shorthands and conventions in use by the existing Twitter community.
Unlocking The Twitter Secret Menu
If you live on the west coast, or if you’ve vacationed in California, you may know about a local burger chain, In-N-Out Burger. This restaurant, operating since 1948, has a cult-like following. While its menu is simple, over the years customers have created customized items that are available in every store. These items make up the secret menu which the company publishes on its website, but not on it’s menu board at the restaurants. In other words, you have to know there is a secret menu before you can order off it. Someone has to initiate you into the secret menu.
New Twitter users have the help portal for reliable details, and can crowd source answers to their questions. Every day, new users ask for help in their early tweets, and many of them get responses from community-minded people. Things like hashtags, retweets and their notations, and events like follow Friday all need explanation to the incoming users. Twitter has its own secret menu that only the initiated can appreciate and enjoy.
Twitter User Retention Challenges
Recently, a statistic from Nielsen Wire said Twitter retains less than 40% of its new users. That’s a very low user adoption rate. For comparison, Facebook retains about 70% of its users, and new software introduced into the work place expects 100% user adoption. (In other words, the company says you use the new software or else you don’t have a job anymore.)
There are several aspects of Twitter that together make it a challenge for new users. Any one of these is an obstacle for new users, and taken together, they make joining the Twitter ranks a real obstacle course.
- Lack of metaphor. Twitter is a unique communication tool that borrows features from several communication tools and melds them together into something new. The cocktail party metaphor explains most of the basic features, but doesn’t cover them all. Without a cohesive metaphor, users struggle to wrap their heads around Twitter.
- Information rich user interface. On the surface, Twitter appears to be a simple tool, but in reality, it has rich and complex features. Take the components of a tweet as one example. Encoded in the shorthand is a wealth of information about the tweet’s creation and its place in a conversation thread that are not obvious at first glance.
- Community conundrum. People get a new account and expect to start using Twitter. But you can’t really begin to use or understand the Twitter features until you have a fully fleshed out community of people you follow and people who follow you. The user interface is structured to support communication, not community building. There are no clues about where to start community building. For example, there’s not a hint on the front page that you have to have people following you before you can send a direct message. Perhaps most important, there is no way to tell users how to find the the quality community members they need to have a great Twitter experience.
- No real training program. If you use chat for the first time, you can observe what other people are doing to figure out how to chat for yourself. The same with Facebook and other communication tools. You can observe others to get clues about what to do. With Twitter, you can only learn informally through imitation after you complete significant community building. The help portal is constantly improving, and in some places, provides really good support for users. Unfortunately, most users are not willing to read through the help.
- Third-party atmosphere. As a company, Twitter’s policy seems to be that they don’t expect to do it all. They expect and encourage third-party companies to jump into the Twitter universe. There are third-party Twitter tools that performs tasks that seasoned users consider essential, some duplicate Twitter features and some enhance Twitter. As a result, it seems that Twitter defines itself as the provider of the basic service, and everything beyond that, including user training, falls outside their scope and in the realm of third parties.
Building New User Community
The greatest obstacle I see for new users is building community. Without a solid user community, you can’t see the type of interesting communication that is possible with Twitter. In fact, you can’t even use all of the Twitter features until you have community in place. And yet, this is the feature that is least supported by the user interface.
Twitter realizes this initial struggle for new users. A while back, they implemented a suggested user feature that gave new users a list of people to start following. This strategy helps new users build community from the start. By selecting successful users with a large following, new users gain the opportunity to have good content to read, and joined large existing communities. However, this strategy has two major limitations:
- Each Twitter user must create his own community. Jumping into an established community only helps new users begin listening. New users must still engage other users and find people who will follow them to have dialog. If they simply start following people with thousands of followers, even people who will follow them back, they are not likely to have dialog with them because of the size of the community.
- The user community didn’t support the strategy. Instead of realizing that this was an effort to overcome the biggest contributing factor to user churn, other people in the community complained because they were not selected to be a suggested user. They felt others were given an unfair advantage to build their communities based on a tacit recommendation by Twitter.
This strategy provided a partial solution and postponed the onset of the worst symptoms. It’s a decent first strike in my opinion. As users get more experience, it seems logical that they will find other motivation to stay on Twitter and overcome the community building obstacle.
The user adoption issue doesn’t impact Twitter’s effectiveness as a business tool, but it does provide an opportunity for people to jump in with Twitter training materials and programs to help new users through the early community building phase.