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As It Inflects, Twitter Must Add Value to New Users, Faster

By - May 03, 2009

I’ve spent a bit of time going back in time lately, at least as far as Twitter is concerned. In short, I created a new account, as if I had never used the service before.

Why? Well, as Twitter hits inflection, it struck me that there was something really, really important that had to happen, in terms of how the service works. As millions of new users try the service, it’s crucial that they find something useful when they arrive. If they don’t, well, they’ll leave.

And leaving they are, if this report from Nielsen is to be believed. Widely picked up last week in the Twitterverse, the report does the math and finds that 60 percent of those who try Twitter abandon the service within a month. That means no matter how steep the inflection, Twitter will soon burn through its available fuel (new user attention) and could fail to hit escape velocity (where escape velocity = a scaled platform at the level of Facebook, Google, or Yahoo).

That got me thinking. What do new users do when they first log into a service like, say, Facebook? Why, they search, of course.

twitter sign up 1.png

For old friends, for the names of their colleges or high schools, for any kind of social connection that might make sense of the very large universe that is Facebook.

So when Twitter integrated search last week, it was, as I said, a very big deal.

But to my mind, it’s not enough.

To explain my point, let me go back to the experience I recently had of creating a new account – going back in time, so to speak, and pretending to be a newbie to Twitter. The service is very easy to sign up for (see the screen shot at left). Once you pass this screen, you can check to see if

your friends are on the service. This is a pretty standard email database lookup, and I have no idea how many folks go through it. I don’t have email at any of those services (at least, none with any real contacts), so I passed. (I’d be interested in how many folks do use this service, and how many hit the button to skip this step. If it’s a high percentage that use this step, I’d also be interested in what

Twitter signup 2.png

the experience is like in terms of making Twitter more useful, but I’ll have to be blind to it for

this post. I think my conclusions will be valid in any case….).

Next comes the step that I find most interesting, and in its current iteration, most frustrating. This is where the new user gets a

list of folks that Twitter suggests he or she might follow. It’s a pretty random list of interesting folks, including (as I write this) John McCain, Fred Durst, Chris Anderson, Oprah, John Legend, and so on. It changes from day to day, but anyone who’s ever made it onto the list reports that their followers skyrocket – sometimes by an order of magnitude.

Why? Well, turns out most newbies to Twitter simply hit “follow all” and end up with the list of twenty or so suggested Tweeters as their first set of folks they are following.

Therein lies the problem. Ah, the dinner bell is ringing, when I come back, I’ll explain why, and suggest a better way. I’m sure many have already thought about this, but I never claimed to be original, just persistent. And…I really want Twitter to get

Twitter signup 3.png

escape velocity…because every time a rocket makes it out of the Valley and into the Rest of The World, it feels like the work we all do is worth it.

(Back from Dinner). So why is following twenty or so interesting people a problem? Well, while I am sure these folks are chosen for their general interest and lively tweets (for more, see Twitter’s blog post on suggested users), it turns out that it’s simply not very

compelling, in the main, to watch these guys tweet. It’s certainly not as addictive as finding an old friend on Facebook, for example. It’s neat, but it’s not going to get folks to come back, over and over again.

What *is* interesting, or could be, is watching folks tweet who you care about. Perhaps they are friends, or family, or leaders in your line of work, or entertainers you love. For whatever reason, they are *your* leaders, and finding them, at least during the sign up process, is entirely too hard.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It strikes me that a few more structured steps in the sign up process could really pay significant dividends for Twitter. Perhaps a “follow wizard” that asks a few questions, and makes suggestions based on input

from the new user. Let us drill down by category: Business:Technology:Internet, or Health:Diseases:Cancer. The ontology isn’t very complicated – mapping users to it is a bit more complex, but not impossible.

And encourage folks to put in the names of their friends via search – that’s magic when you find a friend who’s already on Twitter, and might act as a sherpa of sorts.

There are already a lot of third party services that help users find folks worth following, but new users are never going to find them in their initial interaction with Twitter. incorporating this kind of a service into a newbie’s initial experience – even if it’s very, very simple – could pay huge benefits in turning around that 60% abandonment number, and soon.

In short, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and right now, Twitter’s initial impression does not add enough value. But with a few tweaks, it most certainly could.

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  • http://www.freecontactlists.com/_companies-address.php Craig

    I signed up for the signed up for a Twitter account over a year ago and abandoned it after about a week becuase it had on value for me.

    The only reason I am thinking of getting on agan is because I am in marketing And I have to stay on top of trends etc.

    Perhaps they shouldhave reviews of people yo can follow, categories, a guide or some sort of editorial oversight… but that would detract from teh random nature which is part of the thrill, at first.

  • http://www.davepool.com Dave Pool

    I, too, do not use any of the email services in that intro page, so I passed on them. My first step was not to find people I knew. Instead, I took the path of jumping in, picking a user (from info in the profile), then seeing who his or her followers were, reading *their* profiles, etc. I sent @user tweets if I thought I had a pertinent question or something of value to add.It’s been a lot of work, I’ll tell you that. Not too many users, I’d wager, would invest the time. But, the result has been that the people I chose to follow have been very enlightening and a joy to get to know.

  • http://twitter.com/atul Atul

    Lots of tweet aggregators like SawHorse Media (venturemaven.com…), TweetMeme, wefollow and off course ExecTweets are appearing on the horizon. The Tweet aggregators should somehow be folded into the experience of choosing who to follow for new users. Dave Winer has documented his experience in signing up as a new user and choosing the default people to follow and the tweets were most uninteresting. See http://www.scripting.com/stories/2009/05/01/whatAFirsttimeTwitterUserS.html

  • http://themediabiz.blogspot.com Jeff Klein

    I agree. It’s too hard and too frustrating. Not sure it’s gonna last unless there is enough there to make people come back….and you have to come back often to make it worthwhile, which is a decent commitment.
    There is a lot more that twitter could do to make the experience more interesting and build retention. Why not some simple explanations of twitter abbreviations and protocols that pop up during the sign up process, rather than making you go to a help page to learn the basics. I don’t even remember having the option to use my gmail contacts to see who else was on twitter….

  • http://wererogue.livejournal.com/ wererogue

    I wonder what the statistics are for people like me and my wife, who signed up months ago and dropped out, but came back later. Visiting the site was what killed Twitter for me – if Google Reader supported authenticated feeds, I’d have been hooked from the start. The TwitterFox extension made twitter actually useful, so now I’m using it a lot more.

  • http://www.epostmailer.com Khurram

    Twitter is like a breath of fresh air on the Social Media scene. I have been on it for just a few weeks now and I have met several interesting people. It is a platform to network with people you would like to meet in real life.

    http://ePostMailer.com

  • http://on-his-mind.blogspot.com/ Edwin Watson

    This is a big problem! I also opened a twitter account a few years back and because I did not have a lot of people to follow and my friends were not using twitter I thought it was useless now I use twitter every day!

    I found a site with tutorials on twitter which helped me a lot! You can find these guides at http://on-his-mind.blogspot.com/

  • http://www.elevation-inc.com Eric

    I realize that Twitter is a small organization (40+ people), but there are so many helpful services they could be adding in order to add value for their users. Unlike those users that are leaving I got the bug early and use it several times a day, but rarely do I go to twitter.com. While I’m using their service, I’m primarily utilizing 3rd party software and sites to do it.

    I’d argue that I have a much stronger brand relationship with Tweetie. In fact Tweetie’s ads are one the rare times I can actually remember clicking on an advertisement and actually buying an item (an iPhone app). I love the fact that Twitter has an open engine through API, but it doesn’t mean that they should solely depend on 3rd parties to create value. That value is ultimately monetization. Maybe they’re waiting to be acquired by someone who’ll help them achieve it. Whatever the plan is for revenue, it would be nice to see some sort of sign of experimentation coming out of their own camp.

    ExecTweets would be an example of trying something. Did they really have much to do with it? Did Microsoft drive it? Was it your idea? How is revenue generated and shared.

  • http://www.pursuitnow.com Maury Giles

    Great post and I think at the heart of the problem for a newbie. I had a mentor/friend/coach in a colleague who helped me think through what to do and how/why to do it. It was so simple looking, but so bizarre in trying to understand what the heck to do with it.

    I think most people think “why would I want to type what I’m doing in 140 characters and watch other people say the same thing.” There is so much going on here than that, but with the celebrities coverage being the “loudest” press explanation about Twitter, its no wonder many people are curious at best and skeptical or bored or “told you so” at worst when they come and sign up.

    I completely agree with the connections and find people solutions mentioned. I also think some basic tutorial or simple visual story-telling about ways people use Twitter would make a huge difference. People would have an “aha” moment here or there. And, why not even have a place where you can sign up as a mentor/advocate and people can tweet DMs your way to ask for ideas. These could be filtered to not be bloodsucking spam-feeders in a community watch sort of system… and they’d make a big different on multiple levels.

    Thanks for the post and ideas!

  • http://www.aripaparo.com Ari

    Simple solution: They should let you login with Facebook Connect and grab your social graph.

  • http://www.ioncorporation.com/blog Mark Ivey

    Nice post, and it helps explain why so many people drop off Twitter. I tell people to figure out a strategy before they jump in and specialize in an area (mine is marketing and social media). You can use tools like Twellow and WeFollow to find leaders in your catagory to follow, at least it’s a start. I recently posted resources and tips on how to develop a community, using these and other tools. But I probably forgot that these are of little good if the person doesn’t get past the first day “impression” and processes. Hopefully Twitter will fix it. Thanks for the reminder.

  • http://matthewburton.org Matthew Burton

    “Abandon” isn’t permanent, though. When I signed up in 2007, I immediately found it pointless. I ignored it for over a year before returning, and now use it more frequently than any other site. More than any other site I can think of, Twitter evokes an initial “Huh?” and only reveals its utility upon frequent use.

  • Elissa Hambrecht

    So I joined last week mainly to familiarize myself with the medium. I’m going to drop it this week. Part of the problem is what you listed above. But even more than these problems the most annoying thing I found was that almost as soon as I joined I started receiving emails stating that people or entities who I didn’t know were now following me. This struck me as creepy, commercial and annoying.

  • http://sonofgeektalk.wordpress.com/2009/03/30/social-media-20/ Gianni

    I agree with the premise, but I think the solution is a more radical one. I already know a set of people who I’d care about on Twitter: it’s my LinkedIn or Plaxo or (God forbid) Facebook friends, isn’t it?

    This is distorted situation created by the perception our profile on belongs to said platform instead that to the user.

    I hope this will be corrected soon

  • http://nocheckloans.com/ Newman

    Thanks for review mate! I’ll try Twitter now :)

  • Simon

    Couldn’t agree more. In joining twitter a month back it felt like being dropped into the midst of a crowded city, but with no idea how to find like minded people other than that to blindly stumble around. Twitter – this is the whole point of the Internet: to be easily connect with relevant communities.

  • Simon

    Couldn’t agree more. In joining twitter a month back it felt like being dropped into the midst of a crowded city, but with no idea how to find like minded people other than that to blindly stumble around. Twitter – this is the whole point of the Internet: to be easily connected with relevant communities.

  • http://hip-shots.com/ James Hipkin

    I suggest they put even more emphasis on search.

    I’ve been using Twitter for over a year and find it both useful and entertaining. I still use search to find interesting people to follow. For example, #wine is a search term I have set up in TweetDeck. This shows me lots of tweets from others interested in wine. When I see one or more interesting contributions, bingo, I have someone else to follow.

    Instruction on how to do this would be more useful and way less scary for a new user than asking them to give Twitter access to their contact file.

  • http://halifax.infomonky.net topbanana

    It’s not possible anymore to search twitter by location, so the people you most likely would want to follow, the people who live in your area, are hard to find.

  • http://www.ScienceOfLife.co.nz Gerald Lopez

    As author of The Search, John, you know where the problem lies – in a nascent, naive general understanding of search practice amongst the public.

    As you said in your book, search is the interface between the human world and the Web; just like the tires are the interface between the car and the road. Buy cheap shoddy tires, and that interface may not last long…

    Social media providers must make it easy for incoming networkers to understand the terrain, and the way to navigate it through search, joining groups, finding directories, etc. Otherwise, these people give up in frustration.

    I opened a facebook account about a month ago. I haven’t done anything with it – because I don’t know what to do. I have had to borrow a library book to find out.

    Same with Twitter. The joining interface is simple – too simple! For two weeks I thought “what do I do with this Twitter homepage?” I had to spend hours of valuable time scouring the Internet to find clues.

    I finally found “Twitter Power” by Joel Comm, a tremendous book that has catapulted me right into Twitterdom.

    Why can’t Twitter provide the clues?

    Come on geeks, there are real humans out there! If you don’t know how to do it, hire me to show them the way!

    Cheers,
    Gerald
    Auckland, New Zealand
    http://www.ScienceOfLife.co.nz
    http://www.twitter.com/gezz_nz

  • http://evolvetf.blogspot.com/ RichF

    I tried twitter recently and I couldn’t see what it provided that facebook doesn’t (and better). Maybe it’s just me.

  • Lynne

    I couldn’t agree more. I am a hardcore Twitter fan but I’ve had a hell of a time convincing friends and non-tech industry associates that it’s actually a worthwhile (and life enriching) application.

    After both my sisters joined, added the 20 or so suggested ‘follows’ and then stuck in the mud I realized that I’d had a very distinct advantage when I joined Twitter–dozens of other online marketing and UX industry contacts who’d already joined and who had well developed ‘Friends’ lists. I was able to add a couple of colleagues, spin through their lists of ‘Follow’s, find others I knew or that I’d wanted to know, then gone through the Friends of THOSE new contacts…and so on and so on.

    Finding other non-industry friends and neighbours has been much more difficult and I completely understand the abandonment rate at this point. If you can’t find anyone to connect with in a meaningful way on a social network then why bother?

    I use Twitter to converse and network and learn and honestly find that I’ve nearly abandoned iGoogle and my Reader account in favour of perusing links posted in Tweets–it’s completely changed my online behaviour in just a couple of short months–but until Twitter finds a better way of connecting and engaging users I also fear it will never really make it out of the gate.

  • http://www.dir.vg dir

    Of other online marketing and UX industry contacts who’d already joined and who had well developed ‘Friends’ lists. I was able to add a couple of colleagues.

  • http://www.geothermalxperts.com/ Henry

    Lynne has a clever idea of using Twitter to network and find people in an industry. Also, I really like the idea of tweaking Twitter to create a ‘follow wizard’ – that would simplify what Lynne suggested.

  • http://www.ibp4seo.com/IBP-Free-Download.html Free IBP Download

    Great Article..

    Twitter is a free online social media networking. It is provide lot of information and lot of online friends.

    Twitter has gained extensive notability and popularity worldwide.

    Thanks for the information.

    Cheer’s,
    john
    http://www.ibp4seo.com/IBP-Free-Download.html

  • Jenifer Olson

    Hi John,

    Thanks – good article!

    Couple of thoughts:

    1) My experience is similar to other Twitter users who’ve shared they signed up and then went dormant for awhile (with me it was at least 6 months). The reason for my inactivity wasn’t that I was unable to find people I knew or liked. I was just busy doing other stuff, and really didn’t know what I wanted to *do* with my account. It took a catalyst to get me moving (my former boss sent me a follow invite – ironically, now he’s dormant).

    Point being, we may want to do some basic market research to determine the actual lifecycle of an average peep before we say we have a retention problem. When you have a lot of people taking advantage of a free service, a 40% retention rate may or may not be unwarranted. Many successful direct selling companies I’ve worked with over the years sport new recruit retention rates anywhere from 35%-45%. People join, they leave to do something else and they flow in and out for years at their leisure. Maybe not unlike Twitter.

    The way I see it, Twitter will grow two ways: First, by geographic penetration and then by increased productivity (more peeps being more active at any given time).

    2.Interestingly, only a couple of my followers are people I knew before Twitter – and they’re not really active. I did use the recommended follow list to find CNN and a couple other news sites and commentators. Another initial follow was Michael Hyatt who sent a very helpful link for beginners, which was critical to my understanding of how to use Twitter and build a following (I’d already been reading his blog for a couple years, so I knew to look for him).

    That said, I do like and support the idea that Twitter provide a more robust platform for people to find and follow relevant tweeps. And based on what I’ve been reading from Twitter, etc., I believe it’s coming soon.

    Thanks again for a terrific article!

    Jenifer
    @jenajean

  • http://mayank.name Mayank Dhingra

    The least that Twitter can do is to allow invite from other social networks/platforms or a suggested list based on the users location, I feel chances of running into someone you can relate to(or possibly know) get better if you are within the same city.

  • http://www.reactorr.com/blog/ Mark

    I recall Forresters social technographics profile suggests contributors around 20 percent, making me thing that with a 60 percent dropoff rate there’s a lot which are eager to test the waters of the latest social media fun and typically allow the accounts to go stagnant. These numbers are noticably similar to blogs which die out too.

  • http://www.forging-company.com Alex Jiang

    I registered in twitter for a new account. however I found it is not useful for our team info communication. Sometimes it is not good as the msn group. I am from a forging company. http://www.forging-company.com We are trying to use twitter improve our work efficiecny.