Twitter should let you follow words again

Follow this path by Sven Lohmeyer licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Follow this path by Sven Lohmeyer licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I gave up on Twitter twice before finally “getting it” years ago. I became a fan of the tool when I realized Twitter could send me every tweet that included certain words or phrases — even if I didn’t follow the people who posted those tweets.

That feature went away years ago, but I was reminded of it recently when Danny Sullivan at Marketing Land wrote about an idea to help Twitter gain and keep new users. Danny imagines a Twitter where people follow interests instead of accounts. If you follow sports, for instance, you see all sports-related tweets posted by anyone.

Words instead of interests

Instead of following interests, I suggest that Twitter resurrect the ability to track specific words or phrases. When I search Twitter for “data journalism,” I want an option to “follow” that search. Selecting that option would tell Twitter that I want to see tweets like this one in my main timeline, even if I don’t follow Nicholas Jackson:

My concept addresses a concern that a Marketing Land commenter brought up with Danny’s interest-based approach. If Twitter offers general interests, like sports, the results would be too broad to be useful. In my model, a person could be more specific by following tweets that contain “World Series,” or “Lakers,” or  “Landon Donovan.”

Twitter can’t just flip a switch

Unfortunately, the ability to follow specific words never really existed in the way that I’ve described it.

Once upon a time, Twitter supported instant messaging, so you could tweet and read tweets by chatting with Twitter from an app like Google Talk (now Google Hangouts) or AIM. It was through instant messaging and SMS text messaging, that you could tell Twitter that you wanted to “track” a term. Here are some other Twitter commands that worked back in 2008.

Twitter stopped supporting IM clients six years ago, and the “track” command is absent from its current list of SMS commands. With the incredible volume of tweets being sent nowadays, I don’t think it would be wise to re-introduce the “track” command to SMS messaging or to revive support for IM.

If my proposed idea is a simple one to implement, it could help journalists quickly find value in Twitter by letting them track terms and public figures relevant to their beats. It could help companies quickly find value in Twitter by letting them track industry terms and competitors. If it helps attract and keep new users, it could help shareholders find greater value in Twitter.

Twitter impression rate: only 8% of my followers see my tweets

The Wild Man Of Unanderra by Alan licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The Wild Man Of Unanderra by Alan licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This might come as a surprise to some of you, but most of your Twitter followers don’t see your tweets.

I have more than 7,000 Twitter followers, but my status updates are shown only 580 times on average. That’s an 8.3% Twitter impression rate.

The data comes from Twitter’s Tweet activity dashboard, which shows, among other things, “how many times your Tweet has been viewed on Twitter’s Android and iOS apps or on Twitter.com.” Continue reading

Twitter timeline change is good because Netflix

Twitter Netflix
failwhale_netflix by emosoda licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Twitter changed its timeline today, and I’m glad.

Your Twitter timeline was previously populated with almost all of the tweets from accounts you follow, with the most recent updates at the top of the list. Now, you’ll see some tweets from accounts you don’t follow. Twitter selects those tweets based on a “variety of signals,” the details of which are immaterial to my argument. You can read all about the changes on Twitter’s blog post.

I suspect some longtime Twitter users will bemoan the sacrilegious  tampering of the sacred timeline. We like a pure social stream. We like to see every drop of tweeted information as it makes its way down that stream. We don’t want Twitter littering the stream with unrequested junk.

So why am I glad for the change? One word: Netflix.

Netflix shares dropped 26.4% late Wednesday. Why? Because, according to The Wall Street Journal, the company failed to meet expected growth of new users. It didn’t lose customers. It actually gained 980,000 streaming customers in the U.S. and 2.04 million foreign customers. But those numbers fell short of the expected growth of  1.33 million and 2.36 million customers here and abroad, respectively.

I use Twitter every day. It’s a great tool. I want it to succeed. Since it’s a publicly traded company, that means that it has to keep its shareholders happy, it has to continue to grow.

In it’s most recent quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Twitter stated that if they were “unable to convince potential new users of the value and usefulness of our products and services,” that could “negatively affect user growth and engagement.”

The change in the timeline is meant to attract new users, as Mathew Ingram reported at Gigaom:

The impetus for Twitter to filter is obvious: the service needs to show growth in both number of users and engagement in order to satisfy investors, and finding relevant content as a new user can be a challenge, which is why the company recently updated its so-called “on-boarding” process.

Through its years of consistent growth, Facebook has constantly changed the algorithm for its News Feed. Users complain, but new subscribers continue to sign up.

I haven’t detected any negative impact to my Twitter timeline, and tweets – all the tweets from the accounts I follow - are still showing up in reverse chronological order.

If Twitter needs to attract new customers, changing the timeline might be one way to make the service more appealing than it was to me when I first looked at it seven years ago. I don’t mind a timeline tweaked so slightly that I haven’t noticed a difference, if it means that Twitter can continue to grow.

Alternatives for subscribers who didn’t get their O.C. Register

Old News by Doug Wheller licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Old News by Doug Wheller licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Thousands of Orange County Register subscribers haven’t received their newspapers for the past few days (stories by the L.A. Times, O.C. Weekly and O.C. Register), so I thought it would be helpful to list some other ways those customers can get the news they’ve been missing.

The most obvious solution is to use the internet. People could visit the Register’s web site. They could go to Google and search for Orange County news. They can be more specific and query the search engine for news in their particular city.

For those married to the print medium, the Register has said that (paying) subscribers can visit the office in Santa Ana to pick up a “free” copy of the paper. People can also visit their local convenience store or hunt down a rare newspaper vending machine and purchase a copy of the Register or a competing publication.

Unfortunately, none of my suggestions are good ones.

Visit the Register’s Facebook page, or search Twitter for mentions of @ocregister.  Customers have been using social media to complain about the problem. So-called “print customers” obviously know how to use the internet and social media. They know how to find the Register on Twitter. They know how to find the Register on Facebook. It’s safe to assume they know how to visit the Register website and read the news there.

The vocal print subscribers who use social media to complain about distribution problems don’t seem interested in a digital solution. Post after post makes it clear. They want what they signed up for, a newspaper delivered to their doorstep.

If there’s one thing this delivery debacle has taught us, it is this: there is a real demand for newspapers, even among people who use the internet and social media.

What’s the lesson?

So, if for some news consumers there is no substitute for printed news, what should the Register and other newspaper organizations take away as a lesson from this experience? I want to hear what you have to say. Leave a comment below or strike up a conversation on Twitter, where you can find me @ksablan.