This is actually healthy for the industry. The early Internet had three dominant portals. Search became a mature segment around two major offerings. Even home computing came down to Mac and PC.
We need a small number of critical players to make the market – to evolve product offerings in order to evolve the space. For the foreseeable future – Facebook and Twitter are those two companies.
Yet, an interesting dynamic is developing and it is one that users and marketers are beginning to notice: Facebook is moving too fast and Twitter is moving too slow.
FACEBOOK IS MOVING TOO FAST
Think about what Facebook was like the first time you used it. Now think about how you use it now. The two versions are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Both were built around status updates, but that is where the similarities end. Over the past five years, we have been introduced to News Feed, Places, Ticker and Timeline along with thousands of smaller innovations.
On the surface, this all seems good – the larger moves certainly are. Change keeps things fresh. Evolution is smart. New options are welcome. But dig deeper. Log into Facebook right now and chances are that you will see an element that did not exist yesterday – as well as something that existed yesterday that is no longer there today.
By some accounts, Facebook rolls out 60 product updates a day. Even if that product statistic is exaggerated, ask a community manager what the actual figure is. The answer you will hear in response is most likely: too many.
Media buyers have gone from utilizing a few ad products to having dozens to choose from with endless permutations. Technologists and creative teams are forced to monitor an avalanche of constantly revised functionality.
Facebook is clearly following a business plan that was baked-in early on: Introduce a new user feature, monetize it, repeat. Rolling out News Feed? Welcome to Sponsored Stories. Announcing Edge Rank? Follow it up with Reach Generator.
The quantity and pace of these rollouts have had unintended consequences. Marketers can be overwhelmed with the volume of new requirements. Here is an actual post from the Facebook developer site: The enhanced auth dialog will launch to 5% of the incoming new users of apps next week and rollout more broadly in the following weeks. You can opt out to accelerate this rollout of your new users by enabling the enhanced Auth Dialog in advanced settings within the new Developer App.
Wait. What? (And new directives like this one occur with great frequency.)
Brands and agencies do not have time to consider the consequences of those changes because they barely have enough time to migrate their technology to comply. Right now, for instance, brands should be trying to decide if their Facebook presence is still an owned channel where earned media can truly take hold. But instead, most of the industry is moving at the speed of light trying to keep up with every new requirement.
At some point, users and brands may feel overloaded with the pace of change. For many, this dynamic is already happening.
TWITTER IS MOVING TOO SLOW
Now think about how you used Twitter for the very first time compared to how you use it today.
There have indeed been some excellent user experience enhancements over the last year including the Discovery feature, the addition of images and videos within tweets and other publicly discussed enhancements that should be rolling out over the next few months (e.g.: new search functionality & evolutions to the Twitter mobile app on iPhone).
Yet, the crux of the experience on the platform is still the same: handle, hashtag and the 140 character convention.
This is not an accident and, for the most part, not a problem. The product leaders at Twitter want it to be this way. They aim to make Twitter less of a place where every user has to be on the inside of a secret. So the strategy has been, in large part, to let users catch up to the platform while making the platform incrementally easier to use.
That part of the strategy seems to be paying off, as active user numbers have scaled to around 150 million worldwide. With more active users, advertisers have more people to reach. By that factor alone, Twitter ad revenue has gone – and will continue to go – up.
However, brands have not always known how to use the platform. Early on, it felt like an advanced-engineering degree was required to tweet – let alone harness the platform for marketer needs.
As brands have moved further into Twitter, many have been successful when using it as a customer service tool or as a compliment to television (i.e.: keep the conversation going on Twitter).
Still, the platform today is essentially a text-based experience. How creative can a brand get when confined to 140 characters? Here is a tweet from The Ford Motor Company a few weeks ago: @Ford CEO Alan Mulally joins the #GoFurther event http://twitpic.com/a19imc.
Marketers have had to get creative within the rigid parameters of the platform. Brand marketers need brand-worthy space. Characters of text like search results, text links and tweets are terrific for acquisition and traffic driving marketing, but brand marketers want and need to create experiences like applications and tools. They want to build the equivalent of microsites on owned channels like YouTube Brand Pages and Facebook Profile Pages. Twitter does not offer these solutions to marketers because that experience does not fit into their current user strategy. It may someday, but for now brand pages are just an element on a product roadmap that is innovating for users, but could innovate faster for marketers.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?
What Facebook can learn from Twitter: Take time evolving the product so users do not lose sight of why they love you and marketers understand how to engage with you.
What Twitter can learn from Facebook: Evolve the product to include more image, video and brand-friendly elements that create an environment to acquire the next 150 million users and capture the next $1 billion in revenue – brand revenue.
These two properties are charting the course for the social marketing category and, in many ways, for the digital industry as a whole. The fact that each are focused on finding the right balance of user experience, product development and monetization should encourage all of us who care about this space. As they go, they should each look across at the other to learn valuable lessons that bring them towards the center. A more measured Facebook and more aggressive Twitter would serve all of us well in the end.