Can Donald Trump Make Twitter Great Again?
The president-elect certainly has given Twitter a relevance it's never known before. But can Twitter profit from Trump that way he's profited from Twitter?
An avid Twitter user since 2009, Trump has reveled in serving up equal doses of self-promotion and caustic insults. And far from moderating his style while seeking the White House, Trump seems to have turned up the volume.
Maybe Trump will dial back the snark and outrage once he moves to Pennsylvania Ave. But for now, Trump has made Twitter his de facto megaphone. And his 3 a.m. stream-of-consciousness tweets about taxes or terrorism may take the place of the traditional White House press conference or televised prime-time speech.
If that happens, Twitter becomes a uniquely influential communications network, at least for the next few years. The company lost $103 million last quarter, and is laying off 9 percent of its workforce. In September Twitter conducted a highly public courtship with potential acquirers, but Google, Disney, and Salesforce took a pass.
Meanwhile there is no evidence that the rise of Trump has boosted Twitter's popularity. Its monthly users — 317 million as of September — are up just 3 percent over the past year.
Jan Dawson, social media analyst at Jackdaw Research in Highland, Utah, said there isn't a Trump bump partly because you don't need a Twitter account to read his tweets. The one- or two-sentence blurts are repeated and republished everywhere from cable TV to the morning paper. That's bad news for a company that lives on the revenue from advertisements displayed on its website or mobile app. With Twitter, said Dawson, "you get lots of people consuming your content who aren't helping pay for it."
In the third quarter of 2015, Twitter's ad revenue grew 60 percent; a year later, it went up only 6 percent. That's partly due to slow subscriber growth, but Jessica Liu, a social media analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, said it is also because Twitter knows so little about its users. Facebook knows where you live, work, and go to school; Google remembers every Internet search you've performed. These companies can charge higher prices for precisely targeted ads. By contrast, Twitter collects relatively little data about its users, making it a less appealing venue for ads.
Some argue that millions of non-Tweeters are scared away by hateful, harassing messages from a handful of users.
"The problem with Twitter is they're undercensoring, obviously," said Dawson.
Purge the troublemakers, he said, and welcome a surge of new members — and ad dollars will follow.
But Twitter's efforts to police its site have been inconsistent and capricious. Moreover the temperature of some of Trump's tweets — and the reactions they cause — suggest Twitter is not going to be a civil debating society anytime soon.
And Trump's Twitter love extends only so far. According to the news site Politico, when the president-elect met with technology leaders in New York Wednesday, he specifically disinvited Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey because his company wouldn't allow the use of an emoji image mocking Trump's Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Twitter shouldn't put its future in Trump's hands, anyway. Its most promising new business idea has nothing to do with politics: broadcasting live football, baseball, and hockey games that should attract millions of mobile sports buffs — and the advertisers who want to be in front of them. And on Wednesday, the company upgraded its mobile app to allow live video streaming from smartphones.
Both moves should make Twitter a lot “stickier.” The average American Facebook user visits for 35 minutes a day, according to research firm comScore, but Twitter users stay for only one minute. If Twitter can simply get its audience to stick around a little longer, that’s money in the bank. And that’s worth a lot more to Twitter than the next tweetstorm from Donald Trump.