What Marketers Need to Know About Twitter's Timeline Changes

Changes Designed to Surface Content, Fuel Engagement Among Casual Users

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Twitter has been a bastion of self-curation, unlike Facebook, which has puzzled -- and sometimes infuriated users -- by embracing an algorithm to determine what users see in their feed.

But that's about to change.

Dick Costolo.
Dick Costolo. Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

When Twitter CEO Dick Costolo presented earnings to Wall Street last month, he told analysts that the company was not "ruling out any kind of changes" to its feed. He added, "you'll see a number of kinds of experiments that we produce here."

Over the weekend, one such experiment quietly landed in mobile users' feeds.

Some users noticed that their mobile timeline -- normally filled with posts from users they follow, those users' retweets and ads -- suddenly had a newcomer: a tweet favorited by a user they follow.

Twitter issued a public clarification in a post titled, "What is a timeline?"

"Additionally, when we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that's popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline," the post states. "This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don't follow. We select each Tweet using a variety of signals, including how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it. Our goal is to make your home timeline even more relevant and interesting."

Twitter declined to comment beyond the post.

Nudging the casual user
The changes only apply to the mobile app, an executive familiar with the company said. The timeline changes are designed to surface content similar to what a user is posting and seeing. But the company has not ruled out the possibility that branded content could jump to mobile feeds under the changes, the executive said.

Mobile poses a challenge for the company because of its smaller real estate. The desktop site allows for algorithmic and paid discovery. In essence, the changes are a way to pull posts from Twitter's Discover tab over into the main feed, where they will receive more eyeballs.

At the moment, the changes don't impact Twitter's ad products, which the company has recently expanded. The morphing of the timeline on mobile is more of an effort to increase engagement, particularly with content outside the stream. That's been a challenge on mobile, where Twitter's users are gravitating.

Twitter likes to slip in tweaks to its product quietly. And typically it does not alert its advertisers. Like most users, Sean Muzzy, CEO at digital agency Neo@Ogilvy, learned of the recent changes from his Twitter stream. The reaction, he said, was "largely negative."

But the product changes aren't aimed at avid users, who are often the most vocal about adjustments to the platform. Instead, Twitter is trying to fuel more engagement from its casual users, who, the company hopes, may be searching in vain for new accounts and conversations to follow.

Twitter's ad dollars are ballooning -- last quarter ad revenues increased by 129% to $277 million. Yet user engagement is not keeping pace. The number of monthly active users, at 271 million as of June, has not grown as quickly as expected. And growth in timeline views, Twitter's metric for feed refreshes per active user have been declining.

Facebook playbook
When Twitter highlighted the timeline change, the default comparison was Facebook, which has shifted to a feed heavily influenced by an algorithm. Twitter has shied away from comparison with its social peer, in part because Facebook's active user base is about five times larger.

Lee Maicon, senior VP-strategy at 360i, said a better comparison may be Amazon. The e-commerce giant popularized the recommendation-engine, a feature introducing users to content based on their behavior. Twitter is doing something similar, Mr. Maicon explained -- and marketers should be poised to jump into the conversation. The changes provide an opportunity for earned media campaigns, like those involving promotional deals with celebrities or other popular Twitter users.

"They're doing what a host would do at a party, by introducing two people to each other," Mr. Maicon said. "They need to offer a different vision for how people can use the platform."

Still, the comparisons to Facebook are unavoidable. Twitter's new desktop profiles look similar to Facebook; Facebook has attempted to ape Twitter's feed for live news.

With this week's changes, Twitter is angling to improve its platform in the hopes that ad dollars will pour in, said Robert Peck, an analyst with SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. "Twitter has such a playbook laid out in front of it in Facebook," he said. "Literally, all they need to do is to follow along that playbook."

Twitter is certainly cognizant of pushback from its users. But when it comes to ads, the company still has plenty of room to grow, said Mr. Peck. He noted that Facebook's ad coverage sits at 5% -- about one ad for every 20 posts. Twitter's ad penetration is less than half of that.

That's good news for advertisers eager to tap Twitter's inventory -- and for those eager to see its prices drop. But several marketers have expressed concern that Twitter may stick to Facebook's playbook too closely. In particular, they're worried about a repeat of Facebook's moves to limit organic reach in the news feed.

Twitter could, in theory, impose the same limitations on a company's Twitter presence -- its posts may not reach every follower, for instance, unless the marketer buys an ad. If Twitter can add content to the feeds, it can take it away.

"It's not happened yet," said Mr. Muzzy. "But would it be completely shocking if that happens? No."

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