Twitter revolutionized communications, from expediting the pace of breaking news to transforming how brands connect with consumers online.
Many brands operate numerous Twitter accounts, integrate the platform into their social media campaigns, and use it for crisis response and real-time marketing.
Yet PR pros say for all the attention Twitter gets – they don’t deny its profound influence on communications – its utility in campaign work has decreased in the past several months.
Jeremy Woolf, Text100’s global digital and social media lead and SVP, says the microblogging platform remains very important as a customer-service tool and a way to keep on top of trends and the consumer zeitgeist. "But PR departments are starting to question investments in Twitter designed to drive action but that just seem to add to the noise," he adds.
Woolf notes that real-time marketing blockbusters like Arby’s 2014 Grammy Awards tweet about Pharrell’s hat or Oreo’s "You can still dunk in the dark" Super Bowl tweet are few and far between because of the sheer amount of content on Twitter. The platform’s strict chronological timelines mean messages can sink fast, he adds. And in addition to text and images, users can post video through its live-broadcasting app, Periscope.
"I liken Twitter to putting a message in a bottle," says Woolf. "It takes maybe two-and-a-half seconds for a tweet to scroll down the page; there is only a very tiny window of opportunity to get noticed."
Thomas Gensemer, chief strategy officer at Burson-Marsteller, says, "We would miss Twitter more for its very valuable data stream than we would from a campaign perspective."
"We often use the information we glean from Twitter to build campaigns and communications on other social media platforms or even to inform offline campaigns," explains Gensemer. "But we don’t use Twitter for reach. There is also not much to do on the platform for a branded campaign."
"And I think that’s at the heart of its challenges in terms of monetizing its service," he adds.
Those challenges have resulted in a change at the top at Twitter. The company will switch its leadership on July 1, when co-founder Jack Dorsey steps in as interim CEO for Dick Costolo, who will exit after five years at the company.
The transition comes amid investor disappointment in the company’s revenue as well as concerns about its ability to grow its active monthly user base, which Twitter says is 302 million. Venture capitalist and early Twitter investor Chris Sacca recently said in a memo that almost 1 billion people have tried Twitter and never come back.
Yet other communicators stress the importance of the platform during live events.
"What we do for so many clients around live events is very intertwined with Twitter. It’s central to our strategy when we’re interested in driving timely conversation on behalf of a brand," says Jeff Beringer, global practice leader for digital at Golin. "It would be harder to figure out how we can make brands relevant inside live events or breaking news without Twitter."
He notes that "flash mobs" of people discuss topics on Twitter for short periods of time, and marketers can engage people in unique ways if they work quickly enough.
Some brands are starting to look at and understand other options, Beringer says, in particular messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger, China-based WeChat, and Japan-headquartered Line.
"People are moving very quickly to messenger apps and to some degree, I think they’re doing so at the peril of Twitter," he says, referencing the results of Mary Meeker's report on Internet trends, which found messaging apps account for six of the top 10 most used apps globally.
Facebook Messenger has 700 million monthly users, CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed at the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting this month. WeChat has grown to 396 million monthly users, mostly in Asia, its maker, Tencent, said in its first-quarter results.
While these apps were created to provide a private way for users to communicate, seemingly closing them off to brands, Beringer notes they can allow users to broadcast messages to larger groups. He adds that apps such as WeChat have also layered in mini-apps to enable e-commerce and customer service exchanges with brands.
"The other benefit of networks such as WeChat and Facebook Messenger is that they are inherently more personal, unlike Twitter, which feels just like a big news feed and a place to get lots and lots of information," says Beringer. "Brands are already beginning to figure out how to participate inside these places and port the kind of activities they do or are thinking about doing on Twitter."
Tom Edwards, EVP of digital strategy and innovation at The Marketing Arm, agrees there are alternatives that "would fill the void" of Twitter. He cites platforms such as SnapChat, WeChat, and Cyberdust, the last of which deletes messages 24 seconds after they’re read.
Yet he says Twitter has some unique advantages for PR campaigns, in large part because it’s an open network.
"What would not be as apparent is the impact to real-time earned media, as there are limitations, based on privacy settings and limited organic reach on other platforms...Hashtag-centric campaigns would need to adjust," Edwards adds. "Twitter’s ability to combine commentary, hashtags, and a call to action natively in the tweet that can in turn drive discovery is an ideal experience to facilitate many types of social campaigns."
Representatives from Twitter could not be reached for comment by press time.
What’s next for Twitter
There is much speculation in the media about the company’s next move, including a possible sale to Google or another technology sector giant. In the meantime, Twitter is planning on rolling out features this fall, but has not explained how they would boost user engagement or revenues.
In his 8,500-word memo entitled "What Twitter Can Be," Sacca contends the biggest opportunity for Twitter to make money is through expanding the user experience around live events and breaking news. That’s where communicators tell PRWeek most of their work for brands on the platform is done.
"Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and even YouTube can’t hold a hashtag to Twitter’s live content. Facebook has certainly tried more than once to pinch Twitter’s game, to no avail," writes Sacca.
He suggests Twitter offer users a way to more easily find and participate in tweets about live events or breaking news. To that end, the company began testing a TV Timelines page earlier this year, designed to help users track only conversations about a series they’re watching and block out other content.
Twitter has also made investments in connecting brands with influencers and advocates. At the start of this year, it acquired New York-based startup Niche, which is designed to connect brands with video-based social media influencers on Vine, which Twitter owns.
Twitter is getting ready to take the wraps off "Project Lightning," which would display what’s happening on the platform to users who are both logged in to and logged out from the service on various platforms, according to BuzzFeed. The initiative will also help Twitter take advantage of live events.
PR agencies have long used Twitter to establish relationships with key influencers, content creators, and advocates, but Allison+Partners CEO Scott Allison notes that other platforms such as LinkedIn have quickly expanded into similar territory.
"LinkedIn is a great thought-leadership platform. Brands and individuals have amassed large followings and publish regularly. It falls short as a mass-communication tool as compared to Twitter, but it does have a more refined audience," he explains.
In his view, Twitter is most valuable for PR pros as a market research tool for campaign planning.
"Where other social networks fall short is not as a publishing platform or communications tool, but as a research tool and for the ability to search for content and unique insights," he says.