They grow up so fast.
Not long ago Twitter was a constantly babbling infant with little or no idea about how to make money in the real world. Yesterday, the social juggernaut released its first-ever quarterly earnings report.
Great news, right? Well, sorta. This growth puts Twitter in a tough and delicate spot: it must figure out how to change its service's interface to make it easier for casual users to engage with (and see ads in) while retaining the power user base that drives global conversation and makes influencers love them.
Not many Twitter watchers were shocked when the company drastically changed the appearance of their homepage earlier this year to more closely match the easier-to-use mobile version. For a business going public, the move made a lot of sense: now users of both Twitter's desktop and mobile products see a lot of images and video.
Their UI tweak follows two other slight redesigns to their homepage design over the past year. As the number of active monthly Twitter users has increased to 241 million as of press time from 140 million in March 2012, the service has coped with the challenge of making new visitors feel at home—and convincing them there's a point to so many @replies and follows. Although Twitter has a core audience of power users who feel at home on the platform, there simply aren't enough of them to generate profits at Facebook or Google levels—yet.
During Twitter's early years (2006-2009), when there was little advertising on the service, everyone wondered how they would monetize, and third party clients building on top of Twitter's API proliferated. There was, for example, mobile client Tweetie, power-user platform TweetDeck and enterprise dashboard Seesmic. As Twitter matured, it began steering users of those third-party products toward Twitter's own products, in order to secure more ad revenue for itself. Tweetie and TweetDeck were purchased by Twitter and integrated into existing products, while Seesmic was sidelined and eventually acquired by the non-Twitter-owned HootSuite. It was perhaps Hootsuite's powerful relationship with influential enterprise users and rivals like Facebook and LinkedIn that created a buffer from purchase by Twitter or loss of access to Twitter's APIs.
Meanwhile, the user interface and user experience on Twitter's mobile apps, desktop app, and Twitter-owned TweetDeck have changed in recent months, with the presumed purpose of offering bigger and better space for ads. As the short Vine video below shows, their interface is becoming increasingly photo-centric:
"I see them as a progression to help make the service even more accessible," Brian Blau, a Gartner analyst specializing in consumer technology, told me via email. He added that Twitter does have issues with engagement and retention, and "these changes attempt to address that by making tweets and information you see in your timeline more relevant."
MySpace cofounder (and current online gaming entrepreneur at SGN) Chris DeWolfe, agreed with this analysis of Twitter's UI/UX strategy and stressed that images and video intimately tie into advertising dollars. "Twitter's UI and UX needs to become more visual over the next two years," DeWolfe wrote in a recent email to Fast Company. "We've recently seen the incredible success of Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat, which prove that a picture is worth a thousand words. I would also expect to see more advertising, and ultimately that advertising should be integrated in a visually creative manner."
The problem, for Twitter, is that while changes to its UI and UX could bring in more money over the long term, it could alienate some very important users in the short term. Power users on TweetDeck and HootSuite who view Twitter as a major forum for their work—including entrepreneurs, politicians, lobbyists, and academics—may not to take kindly to their feed being disrupted by prominent ads. When these users access Twitter through mobile applications on weekends, they could be turned off by prominent ads similar to those Facebook places in their desktop product. Time will tell if this level of displeasure means anyone will actually ditch the service.
"It's like a game of follow the money," says Greg Shove, CEO of marketing firm SocialChorus. "Facebook is going to brands saying, 'we have as much audience as Google, so you should be spending the same ad dollars on our platform.' Post-IPO Twitter will now be saying to brands, 'we have one fifth the audience size of Facebook, so you should be spending one fifth the ad dollars on our platform.'"
Ruby On Rails creator and 37Signals partner David Heinemeier Hansson added that for Twitter to maintain their stock price, they need to show revenue and profit growth—and that means "ads, ads, and more ads. Of course that's going to have an impact on the user experience, but nothing that's free is going to last forever."
In the end, Twitter's changing user interface and user experience comes down to mainly one thing: Making money for the company. It remains to be seen just how much money the tower of tweets can make, but for now we can expect more changes and more tension as the company tries to woo both the most muscular users and the masses.