13 Comments

Summary:

Twitter’s decision to send users more email notifications could be a red flag that Twitter is trying to remedy a major stickiness problem, potentially reflecting a major concession for the company: People aren’t engaging with Twitter in the way the founders initially hoped.

sticky notes

Twitter announced Monday that it will start sending users emails each time one of their followers retweets or favorites a message.

The news, which was broken casually in a Tweet, has been covered mostly from a user experience perspective– as an ego-stroking “nice addition” at best and potentially “spammy” at worst. But it strikes me as a signal of a bigger underlying story. Launching more email notifications this late in the game could be a red flag that Twitter is trying to remedy a stickiness problem.

For years, Twitter has sent its users emails sparingly: when a new user starts following an account, and when a user receives a direct message. Twitter’s strategy in this department has contrasted with how often other social networking sites such as Facebook send email notifications.

Since email notification technology is, of course, nothing new, Twitter’s decision to stay out of users’ inboxes has always seemed like a reflection of a greater company philosophy. Twitter Co-Founder Evan Williams told the New York Times  in 2007 that Twitter “adds a layer of information and connection to people’s lives that wasn’t there before” and “has the potential to be a really substantial part of how people keep in touch with each other.” In an interview with NPR earlier this year, Twitter Co-Founder Biz Stone said he “definitely [spends] way more time reading tweets than writing tweets.” By not sending a lot of emails for all these years, Twitter may well have been trying to prove a point: Receiving emails about Twitter activity would eventually seem just as ridiculous as getting phone calls about your inbox.

Viewed from this perspective, it’s hard to imagine the move to send more email notifications was made without an internal debate. This week’s news could reflect a major concession that many people aren’t engaging with Twitter in the way the founders initially hoped. And if there’s one thing that email notifications help with, it’s stickiness: the quality that makes users come back to a website or app again and again.

This wouldn’t be the first time in recent months Twitter has been forced to abandon a long-held philosophy in favor of real-world priorities. Twitter’s recent decision to implement advertising was a major about-face for the company, whose founders vowed for years to keep ads out of the business model. But as a company that has received $360 million in venture capital since taking on its first round in 2007, the pressure is increasingly on for Twitter to prove itself with metrics and money — priorities that could leave some aspects of the company’s personal style by the wayside.

Image courtesy of Flickr user myrrh.ahn.

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  1. I can’t be bothored. It only helps if it’s an email address you usse frequently

  2. Daniel Honigman Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    Interesting take on it. I thought it was another way — albeit a bit annoying — of staying engaged with Twitter if you’re not on it 24/7. Still, if what you’re saying holds true, it’s a VERY big problem for them.

    I’m still curious, too, as to what its REAL, sustainable revenue model will be.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Daniel!

      You’re definitely not the only one curious about the revenue growth strategy. I think that’s a big reason why Twitter will continue to be one of the most interesting tech firms to watch for the foreseeable future.

    2. Perhaps Twitter revenue model will never emerge, just like email. It’s ironic that this article also, somewhat, about Twitter and email…

  3. Possibly correct that twitter is addressing a mindshare problem, but I wonder if it will also enable better interactivity with services that mine such emails (users probably shunt them into folders anyways) to asist in the conversational thread such as #threadsy does now with @replies and dm’s

  4. Facebook has had good success with email notifications. It pulls users back to the site. Likewise, Twitter should benefit from email notifications (if they implement it correctly).

    You have a good point though – adding it so late implies that their current model is not working.

    Here is another thought – Twitter has become an essential utility. But, what if they are not there tomorrow? (i.e. manage to spend all the investor money without proper revenue) Who would take their place?

  5. Donna Brewington White Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    Based on a blog post by one of Twitter’s key investors, Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures — “Social Media’s Secret Weapon – Email” — this move might be the result of a growing understanding of the relationship between social media and email. (http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2011/05/social-medias-secret-weapon-email.html)

    A year ago, Fred wrote a post questioning whether email was on the way out due to social media, but has had to reverse this opinion — especially given the way it has worked in FB’s favor to keep email as a vital part of its communications strategy…and yes, its “stickiness.”

    1. Great point Donna, and thanks for noting the Twitter/USV relationship. I definitely should have linked this together with Fred Wilson’s recent blog post.

      It’s also worth noting that Om wrote way back in 2007 that email would continue to be a hub, even as other social networking sites gain in popularity (http://gigaom.com/2007/09/20/is-email-the-ultimate-social-environment.) Clearly there are lots of interesting conversations to be had on this topic.

  6. Donna Brewington White Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    BTW — in previous comment neglected to compliment you on this post! Very insightful and well-written.

  7. Colleen, I agree with your general thesis in this article how this is yet another example of a change in philosophy at Twitter – which is likely representative of them under pressure to improve engagement and therefore longer term revenue.

    I wrote about this a couple of months ago (http://www.happybuy.com/blog/2011/crossing-the-line-twitter-begins-trading-user-experience-for-revenue/) about how the Quick Bar was one of the first, but not likely to be the last, example of Twitter and their changing priorities. If they keep going too far in this direction it could actually reduce user engagement by enraging their most frequent users.

  8. I’m a tiny bit confused about this. I use Facebook everyday and Twitter many days. I’ve been on Facebook for several years and my overwhelming sense is that the social network with the stickiness problem is Facebook, where users seem to spend less time and be less engaged the longer they are there (exception being Zynga customers).

    Twitter, on the other hand, seems to be one of increasing stickiness. Initially, you follow someone. Eventually you follow several someones. Over time, you are following a list that’s likely longer than when you started, even if you’ve dropped some people along the way.

  9. Twitter should allow users to donate. I’ve read some who would be very willing so.

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