Every brand could learn a thing or two about marketing from Twitter. Not least Twitter itself.
Over the last decade it has stood as a shining example of what a brand can achieve in today’s climate when it brushes away all the complex faux-scientific guff that marketing has become, and instead focuses on what really matters: being a unique and useful business.
While most businesses take an approach of layering interesting advertising over an utterly generic and undifferentiated product, Twitter is simply an interesting business full stop. Its existence is its own advertising. Its format, iconic. So like Coke changing their recipe, or Apple abandoning design, why is it taking a scalpel to everything that makes it what it is?
Let’s pause and think about what makes Twitter different. What is it that makes it a business that doesn’t have to stoop to creative advertising?
Firstly of course we have the icon. 140 characters. The very essence of Twitter. In classical marketing terms, this is the hook. The creative heart of the brand concept. So, naturally, plans are being mooted to tear that up with the minor tweak of increasing the limit to 10,000. We don’t need to analyse why this hit the company’s share price, the reasons are obvious.
Hostile, yet honest
More subtle but equally integral is Twitter’s editorial policy; or rather lack thereof. Fundamentally, the only editor is time. What you see on your screen is only that which is most recent, with no consideration given to quality, relevance, reverence, or narrative. This has made the platform the most honest, transparent, unpredictable, and yes, hostile, destination on the planet.
Traditional editorial policies neuter their platforms, encouraging homogeneity of thought. And that’s good too; you have Breitbart over here, and Salon over there, and never the twain shall meet. Except that is on Twitter. Twitter’s unflinching neutrality has created an untouchable level of dynamism on the platform, which at its best produces sparkling connections and debates, and at its worst descends into abuse.
Naturally, therefore, it is becoming unflinching no longer. Firstly it’s taming the trademark chaos of its time-based interface with the new Moments feature, which introduces old-fashioned editorial oversight to favour information it thinks you want (or ought...) to hear. Secondly it’s making a valiant but ultimately doomed attempt to stem the natural flow of abuse that the platform encourages with the laughably sinister "Safety Council" to police its users’ discourse.
As ever with such ideas, the drawing of a line between "abuse" and "opinions" has not been straightforward. Twitter's head of UK policy, Nick Pickles, noted the emergence of "challenging viewpoints" online and hoped that those seeking to create division would, over time, be "drowned out by voices of hope and respect". Naturally, however, one man’s "challenging viewpoint" is another’s "voice of hope"; a square which sadly can never be circled.
Its motivations for all these changes have, of course, been clear headed. As well as preventing the platform from becoming a terrifying internet ghetto where only the most robust dare to tread, it also wants to compete with Facebook. It wants to grow.
But therein lies the problem. Being a great brand, like Twitter, means embracing what you are, and being comfortable with what you’re not. Twitter has no more right to be bigger than Facebook than milkshakes have a right to be bigger than water. Its utility is by definition more niche, and that’s OK. Whether it can square that utility with profit, well that’s another matter.
Most brands crave difference, and can’t figure out the Twitter secret of how to get it. But Twitter craves conformity, and seems increasingly adept at achieving that goal. Whose shoes would you rather be in?