Twitter's Next Challenge: Explaining Its Value to the Masses

Company Hired New Consumer Marketing Head, Kate Jhaveri, Away From Facebook in August

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Twitter pulled off its debut on the New York Stock Exchange without a hitch, but if it's going to keep impressing Wall Street, it needs to figure out how to demystify itself to the masses.

And that means its own form of consumer marketing to make Twitter less about shorthand for the initiated -- hashtags, subtweets and the like -- and make it a little more "You've got mail."

Credit: A view that new Twitter users see of suggested accounts to follow

In the wake of Twitter's 73% stock pop, CEO Dick Costolo described the challenge: Twitter needs to get better at the process of "onboarding" new users who sign up for an account to see what all the fuss is about.

"That language and that scaffolding [of Twitter] can be confusing and opaque to users who come to the service for the first time," Mr. Costolo said. He called out the need for Twitter to appear "simple and easy" to users who are visiting for the first time.

Unlike Facebook, where the experience of seeing Halloween snapshots and baby portraits from a mix of friends, family and acquaintances is the site's known purpose, Twitter is a service whose utility is uniquely fitted to users based on their interests.

That makes explaining precisely what it is more of a cipher. Twitter content is wildly different for someone who follows their favorite actors and views tweets during prime-time hours than it is for a media professional who uses the service to stay on top of news throughout the day, for example. And if a new user doesn't take the time to follow interesting users, Twitter won't appear to have much value at all.

Twitter has made moves to make the product less intimidating. A prime example is its decision to show conversational tweets between users as an in-stream sequence -- not inserted into the stream in whatever order they were posted -- to users who follow the participants.

Marketing problem
It's also turning again to consumer marketing to address what one observer termed its "leaky bucket" problem. In August, Twitter hired Facebook and Microsoft veteran Kate Jhaveri to be its senior director of consumer marketing. The job of making Twitter more approachable for a mainstream audience had been vacant for almost two years, since the three-month tenure of VP-consumer marketing Pam Kramer ended.

Ms. Jhaveri's purview includes making sure that when someone joins Twitter, there's enough value there to ensure they come back. Currently, new users are taken through steps where they're instructed to choose a set of celebrities, media organizations and brands to follow, then given the option to mine their email contacts for personal connections on Twitter.

Consumer marketing simply might have to become a bigger area of investment for Twitter if it wants its monthly active user numbers to grow briskly. It boils down to the fact that Twitter's user growth in the U.S. has slowed down, and that's where it generated 74% of its revenue in the first nine months of the year. Just 53 million of Twitter's 232 million monthly active users as of the end of September were U.S.-based (compared to 179 million for Facebook in June).

What should Twitter do? It could could hypothetically start employing direct-response tactics, like promoting a 15-second tutorial showing how to set up a compelling Twitter account as a pre-roll ad.

Less likely in the near term is another TV ad. Twitter ran one in June 2012 on TNT during a NASCAR event to explain its new hashtag pages -- a product for advertisers that never took off -- and didn't repeat the experiment.

Twitter didn't respond to a request for comment on Ms. Jhaveri's duties.

If and when Twitter does want to invest more in consumer marketing, agencies will be lined up to pitch.

Explaining the value of Twitter as a window to learning about the world, rather than a string of banalities from people they know would be key, said Christian Haas, executive creative director at Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

"Twitter can attract new audiences by promoting curated lists of content [that new users] can easily follow and, that way, position the service as having a finger on popular culture," he said in an email.

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