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Twitter’s new timeline: What marketers need to know

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By Todd Wasserman

Twitter has always been about immediacy, but this month, the company attempted to throw something else into the mix — relevance.

Faced with stagnant growth, the company decided to tweak its timeline. While, previously, tweets had shown up in reverse-chronological order, now they’re being determined by an algorithm that seeks to surface the “best” tweets. The feature isn’t the default timeline — yet. As of now, it’s just a feature, but in the coming weeks,” it will be standard for all users.

#RIPTwitter? 

Only 20% of the U.S. adult population is on Twitter, so most greeted the news of Twitter’s timeline tweak with a shrug. Among the faithful though, some saw the change as the continued unraveling of a service that might be financially unsustainable. On the weekend before the change was announced, users circulated the hashtag #RIPTwitter, which got the attention of CEO Jack Dorsey. Dorsey downplayed the change and insisted that Twitter would only become more Twitter-y. Many users were still upset, though, fearing, as Slate put it, that the network would become “a sort of Facebook Lite.”

It’s no secret why Twitter would want to mimic Facebook. Despite a rocky first year post-IPO, Facebook’s stock price has jumped 500% since its nadir in 2012, fueled by strong advertising growth — especially on mobile. By contrast, Twitter’s stock price was down around 57% from its IPO at this writing.

Twitter’s Algorithm’s Secret Sauce

Facebook doesn’t share details about its News Feed algorithm, but patterns have emerged over the years. Posts related to major life events like engagements, births, and deaths float to the top of the feed, as does any post that includes the word “congratulations.” In addition, the closer you are to a person — in other words, the more you interact with them on Facebook — the more you will see their posts.”

Twitter has been as mum about its algorithm’s formula as Facebook, but Michelle Haq, a Twitter product manager in charge of the timeline, told Fast Company that the new timeline will surface tweets that tie in with your interests. If you follow a lot of hockey players, then expect to see some NHL-related tweets. More importantly perhaps for advertisers: If a tweet gets a lot of retweets and likes, then it will shoot to the top of the feed, just as highly commented Facebook updates do.

What Marketers Need to Know

Since the new timeline is so new, there are no best practices, only suggestions. Marketing blogger Christopher S. Penn, for instance, advocates taking a quality-over-quantity approach to tweets. “We are better off publishing one tweet about our blog post which garners five Likes on Twitter than publishing five tweets about our blog post which garner one Like each,” he writes. “We must concentrate engagement.”

Carat’s global digital partner Jerry Daykin also told The Drum that the change “could slightly help established brands who can use larger audiences or promoted spend to give their content a head start.”

James Whatley, digital director Ogilvy & Mather, meanwhile, told the publication that the tweak will favor marketers who execute well-thought-out social media strategies. Rather than trying to fill space and respond to every event, he said, brands should be tweeting with the mindset that the best content will shine through.

That was the case before the latest change. Daykin in particular has previously stated that the organic reach on Twitter is just 10 percent, meaning if you tweet, only 10 percent of the audience will see it. Given those figures, the onus has been on marketers for some time to say something memorable that gets retweeted and thus receives more play on the network.

Ultimately, though, the most foolproof way to get traction on Twitter is to pay for it. That’s still no shortcut, however, since to maximize a buy you really want to ensure that organic sharing amplifies your promoted tweet. For that to happen, it’s as Whatley says: The tweets have to be pretty interesting and, yes, relevant.

Todd Wasserman
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February 19, 2016
Todd Wasserman

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