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Twitter: Maybe TV Advertising Doesn’t Work

It would be difficult to describe Twitter’s recent issues in 140 characters, but outgoing CEO Dick Costolo did a pretty good job a while back when he tweeted:

I’m going to leave the punditry about Twitter’s management issues to Chris Sacca and others who have (and will) make suggestions about how to right the ship. What I would like to explore is a simple, obvious fact: Twitter is not a compelling consumer product.

Twitter is many things: a microblogging tool, a social network, a broadcasting platform, etc. But it is clearly not a consumer product.

“@shellypalmer, you’re an idiot! There are millions of people on Twitter every day.”

While I don’t consider myself an “idiot,” there is not much I can (or would want to) do about being called out on a social media network. And it’s true: there are millions of people on Twitter every day. The problem is, there should be many millions more.

Does Television Advertising Work?

There are few, if any, products in the world that receive as much free advertising as Twitter. Practically every show, newsreader, star, commentator, guest, athlete, advertised product, and even a few celebrity pets have Twitter accounts. It is almost impossible to watch television without being directly told to tweet about what you are watching. I’ve seen estimates from various media clipping services that put the value of Twitter’s domestic free advertising in a range between $1.5 and $2.5 billion per year. I don’t have a way to verify these estimates, but if you are watching local television news broadcasts, talk shows, morning shows, reality shows, pretty much every unscripted show on TV, try to ignore the beg-o-tweet messaging on the lower third of the screen. In most cases, you will also be directly asked to tweet, or a voice over the graphic will instruct you to do so.

The companies that use television to advertise their goods and services spend approximately $76 billion annually. They expect a return on that investment, and they get it. Which raises the question, “Why aren’t there hundreds of millions of people on Twitter every day?”

With billions of people being directly asked to sample the product every day, why isn’t Twitter the most popular social network in the world? There are two possibilities: (1) TV advertising does not work. (2) People don’t like the product. I’ll go with number 2.

I know average consumers don’t like the product because they don’t use it. The broadcast industry uses it. Marketers use it. Businesses use it. News organizations use it. Politicians use it. Normal people? Not so much.

A Medium and a Metric

Twitter has taken Google’s place as both a medium and a metric for broadcasters, brands (celebrities, goods and services) and businesses alike. Social media success is equated with popularity. If your Twitter velocity has you trending, you must be doing something buzzworthy, which means you are relevant, which means you matter. In the Information Age, it’s important to be important.

But what does that mean for a young, suburban mother who follows 150 celebrities and brands and 10 people she knows and has 36 followers? How should she use Twitter? Is it her best news feed? Can she really filter out what she cares about using Twitter’s existing features? Is it the best way for her to send or receive a message? Is it really her?

Investor Chris Sacca articulated many of Twitter’s product issues in his “What Can Twitter Be” post. It was heartfelt and it clearly instigated all kinds of mayhem for those who “bleed Aqua.” But if Twitter’s mission has not changed, that mission is “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” Its product has to. Fix the product and everything else will take care of itself.

Like Chris, I really love Twitter. I have high hopes for the company and wish it the very best. My friends who work there tell me that many of the product improvements I’d like to see have been in the works for a while, and some are even ready to deploy. Hopefully, the company will find a way to get them to market sooner rather than later. As Chris said, “Done right, countless users new and old will find Twitter indispensable, use Twitter more, see great ads, buy lots of stuff, and make the company much more money along the way.”

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Shelly Palmer is the host of Fox Television’s "Shelly Palmer Digital Living" television show about living and working in a digital world. He is Fox 5′s (WNYW-TV New York) Tech Expert and the host of United Stations Radio Network’s, MediaBytes, a daily syndicated radio report that features insightful commentary and a unique insiders take on the biggest stories in technology, media, and entertainment.