HIAWATHA BRAY | TECH LAB
The numbers are in and they’re more lopsided than the Boston mayoral race. In the social media sweepstakes, it’s Facebook by a mile.
Last week, the massive social network reported third-quarter revenue of $10.3 billion and net income of $4.7 billion, both well above Wall Street’s expectations. However, the social messaging service Twitter and Snap, creator of the Snapchat photo-sharing app, were both in the red, with Snap posting a $443 million loss.
Snap’s been around for six years and Twitter for 11. So will they ever turn a profit? I’m probably not the best person to ask, since I use them only once in a while. Then again, that might make me exactly the right person to ask.
I’m one of about two billion humans who find Facebook irresistible. That’s far more than the users of Snap and Twitter combined. But if these two companies could manage to attract more people like me, they should be able to survive, maybe even thrive.
I hope they do. Facebook is already too powerful. Some viable competition is needed.
Twitter and Snap are attempting to tweak their offerings just enough to attract a wave of new users, without alienating their loyalists.
Snap has announced a major overhaul of the Snapchat app. It’s famous for introducing the concept of messages that delete themselves, but notorious for a messy and confusing design that’s surely alienated lots of would-be users.
Meanwhile, Twitter, which made its name by limiting user messages to just 140 characters, is now letting us write messages twice as long. Presumably, the company is reaching out to the millions who can’t express their ferocious hatred for Trump or Hillary or the Yankees in fewer than 280 keystrokes.
Each idea takes aim at a core challenge for both companies. Not only must they recruit more users, but they’ve also got to persuade more of them to stick around longer.
After a long period of stagnation, Twitter’s finally seeing sustained user growth — up to 330 million users compared to 317 million at the same time last year. But that’s still pretty anemic growth. And the engagement time for Twitter users looks even worse. The company doesn’t release official data on this, but one marketing company, Mediakix, estimates that the average user logs on for just one minute per day. Even if that’s off by a factor of 10, Twitter isn’t very “sticky.”
Advertisers won’t pay premium prices to reach an audience with short attention spans. Longer tweets, capable of sustaining deeper, more serious conversations, could be a cheap and simple way to keep visitors engaged. But the promise of 140 more characters won’t be enough to make me spend more time on Twitter than my usual 5 or 10 minutes a week. On Facebook, I already get as many characters as I want.
Snapchat, by contrast, keeps its users quite awhile — about 25 to 30 minutes per day, according to the company. For much of that time, users are firing off messages and photos at one another. But Snapchat also has Stories, a feature that serves up high-quality ad-supported content from major media companies like CNN and the Washington Post. Stories could someday generate plenty of cash, as long as the ads draw plenty of viewers.
But for all the hype generated by Snapchat, its user base is remarkably sparse — just 178 million a month, and barely growing. It claims to reach 70 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds in the United States, France, Australia, and the United Kingdom. But many millions of others just don’t get it. And Snapchat’s bewildering app doesn’t help. Just figuring out how to launch Stories or add those cute “lenses” and “geofilters” has scared off many a middle-aged newbie. Making it simpler is bound to help.
But no amount of software tweaks can fend off Snapchat’s biggest problem, Facebook, which has copied its innovations like Stories, lenses, and geofilters, and added them to its own messaging programs, Instagram and WhatsApp. Instagram claims 800 million users per month and WhatsApp, 1.2 billion users. Instagram is already a kinder, gentler Snapchat; I don’t need another.
Both Snap and Twitter have built products that are designed to do a few things well. But Facebook has built a platform. It’s a social environment where users can do a great many things — read the news, post vacation photos, play games, go shopping, or broadcast live video. Neither Snapchat nor Twitter will ever approach Facebook’s comprehensive appeal, or its immense success.
But an unimpeded Facebook is not healthy for our society. Let’s hope Snapchat and Twitter can find a way to hang in there.
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