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How to fix Twitter (and not just Twitter)

January 25, 2016 by Olivier Blanchard - 4 Comments

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those posts. You know… the usual click-bait fodder that content marketers are so fond of: a cursory parroting of the same five to ten tired points that every other content marketer looking for another speaking gig is busy working into their SEO strategy. I’m not here to waste your time with a list of features that Twitter should improve or fix. I am not even going to waste your time with musings about acquisitions and other technology plays that Twitter should jump on to save itself.

It isn’t going to be that kind of post. Today, we are going to look at what it takes to start saving a company like Twitter. This post is going to be about process, about method, about actionable insights that can be applied not only to Twitter but to other companies struggling with the same types of obstacles. So grab something to take notes with, because you’re going to want to do just that.

First things first: What is going on with Twitter?

To understand why we are even having this discussion, here’s a quick recap: Twitter is in trouble. The once immensely popular social platform has stopped attracting new users. Worse yet, many of Twitter’s existing users have all but abandoned Twitter to spend time on other platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Twitter’s stock price isn’t looking too great these days either. (A 55% drop in the last year.)

Twitter has been trying to extricate itself from this seeming death spiral in all the usual ways: 1) Layoffs. 2) Making “big” (but superficial) changes, like pushing the 160 character limit to 10,000 characters, for example. And now, we have entered phase 3: The big shakeup at the top. Over the weekend, several high ranking executives at Twitter abruptly left the company. Fast Company, the New York Times and Re/code reported that “the social media giant’s heads of product, media, engineering, and Vine [were] no longer with the company.” (FC) In addition, the company’s VP of Human Resources is departing as well, bringing that head count to five as I am typing these words. By the time you read this, the list will have probably grown.

Now, we could sit here and do a deep dive of everything that is wrong with Twitter today, and all of the reasons why this is happening, but let’s just go ahead and dispense with the 30,000 word dissertation and get down to brass tacks: At the core of the problem is the simple, basic fact that Twitter isn’t attracting people like it used to. Every single problem that Twitter is currently trying to fix is rooted in that one fact. And unless Twitter figures out how to get people to come back, character limits and layoffs and big shakeups won’t really matter a whole lot.

It isn’t about the features, stupid.

We’re all familiar with the concept of KISS: Keep it simple, stupid. Right? There’s another one MBAs and business leaders need to learn: IIATFS (It isn’t about the features, stupid). Yeah, I know, that acronym doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it’s equally important. Here’s a quick little exercise: What makes Coca Cola, Starbucks, Apple, Nike, Specialized, Yves St. Laurent, Kate Spade, BMW, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram so popular with consumers?

Is it features? Nope. Sure, every one of these companies injects cool and smart features into their products, but plenty of soda manufacturers can mix syrup, food coloring and carbonation. Lots of coffee shops can mix steamed milk with coffee and pour it in a cup. Lots of companies make terrific smartphones, tablets and computers that do everything Apple products can do. I could go down the list but you get it: The features are important, yes, but they’re just the price of entry. More often than not, they aren’t really what separates winners from losers. Hence: It isn’t about the features, stupid.

Focusing on changing your product’s features when your company is faltering is a trap. (And a symptom of a fundamental inability to understand what the real problem is.) If you start with the features, you’re putting the cart ahead of the horse. My advice: Chill, stop, regroup, and start over.

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So what’s the fix then?

The first step towards fixing any problem is to actually identify it. No assumptions. No knee-jerk reactions. If you miss this part, you’re going to be wasting your time trying to fix the wrong thing, and the real problem will remain unaddressed. Bad plan.

Once you have identified the problem, you need to actually understand it. Clearly. Again, leave your assumptions at the door. This isn’t a guessing game. It’s an understanding game. If you don’t understand the problem properly, you aren’t going to be able to figure out why it’s happening, let alone how to fix it. So to get anywhere, you have to ask the right questions. To ask the right questions, you have to start at the beginning:

  1. What’s the problem? People aren’t coming here anymore.
  2. Why aren’t they coming here anymore? Because they don’t care anymore.
  3. Why don’t they care anymore? Because a) we aren’t giving them a reason to, and b) other companies are.
  4. Why don’t people care about our company or product anymore? Tip: (It isn’t because users want their tweets to be 10,000 characters long, or because they want a broader menu of story formats.)

Companies typically get in trouble when they take a shortcut through this process and jump straight into “I need ideas, people! Come on. What’s something new that we could be doing?” It isn’t that it can’t work on occasion, but it wouldn’t hurt to go through a process that drives purpose rather than shiny new objects. (The “I need ideas, people” thing can’t work as solutions if said “ideas” don’t actually address a real problem.)

Don’t worry, this isn’t all I am going to share. It’ just a step in the process. I know this is super basic and elementary. It’s common sense, right? But take a step back and look at struggling companies all around you. (Not just Twitter.) Is everyone remembering to do this? Nope. Not even close.

Fact: Leadership and panic mode don’t always produce great results. It doesn’t matter of you’re a mom-and-pop retailer or a giant tech company with a huge audience and a brilliant track record. People are people, and when they get scared or stressed, they tend to forget how to make good decisions.

It’s kind of like martial arts and shooting: thousands of hours of practice in the dojo and the the range form the foundations for not only technique but muscle memory. That way, if one day, you are called upon to use those skills in the real world, regardless of how scared and stressed you are, muscle memory will take over. Your reactions, your reflexes, will bypass obstacles like panic, stress and indecision.

The business world is a little different in that a business executive usually can’t spend hours upon hours every week practicing his or her company rescue skills. Unless you happen to have someone on board who has done it a lot, there’s no muscle memory to rely on when your company needs to be fixed or saved. The next best thing though is to remember to rely on discipline, on the fundamentals. That’s the muscle memory you should rely on.

Without discipline, without the fundamentals, you will skip steps and take shortcuts, and the moment you do that you’re screwed. Every time. You can’t just wing this sort of thing. It never works.

Okay, now what? (Because it can’t be that simple, right?)

Right. Now that we’ve covered the basics, we can get to the real process of beginning to fix Twitter. But… if it isn’t about features, then what is it about?

At its core, this discussion is about purpose and relevance. It isn’t about price points, right? It isn’t about stock availability or shopping experiences. Not in this instance. Remember: Why are people leaving? Because they don’t care anymore. Why don’t they care anymore? Because a) we aren’t giving them a reason to, and b) other companies are. The answer then, must lie somewhere in the orbit of “how do we make them care again?”

The answer, by the way, won’t be found in trying to be more like Facebook or more like Instagram or more like Snapchat either. (That would be bringing us back to features, and as we now know, it isn’t about the features, stupid. Right? Right.)

As with our earlier exercise, getting past the heart-pumping panic and the momentary lack of clarity boils down to knowing what to do to get through the problem. Here again, there is method and discipline. You are going to have to use your brain and get creative, but that comes later. For this part, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel or take stabs at the problem in the dark. Stick to the method.

The question is one of purpose or relevance? Start there. Here are your two fundamental questions. Until you can answer them, you’re screwed, so figure it out.

  1. Why does Twitter exist?
  2. Why does Twitter matter?

(Feel free to replace Twitter with any company.)

Note that we are talking about actual purpose and relevance here, not mantras and mission statements. Why is your company here? What purpose does it serve? (If you can’t answer that, how do you expect your customers and users to know?)

Once you’ve solved that piece of the puzzle, here is the next set of questions:

  1. What problem does (or could) Twitter solve?
  2. How does (or could) Twitter solve it better or more elegantly than other companies?
  3. How does Twitter make (or could make) itself indispensable to its users?

If you can answer those three questions, you can take it from there. You won’t be out of the ditch quite yet, but you’ll know how to get out of it, and where to go once you are.

That’s the process. That’s how you begin to fix Twitter (and any company struggling with the same kind of problem). Not super complicated, and it doesn’t stop there, but unless you have someone in the room who knows how to do this (and remembers to) it’s easy to end up in the weeds. I have seen it happen hundreds of times, and it’s never fun to watch a great company with a lot of potential struggle and shrink while the very opportunities and solutions they need to solve their problems are right there in front of them. It’s tragic and unnecessary, and it sucks. So if this post can help you or someone you know right their ship, whether it’s at Twitter or anywhere, then I’ve done my job.

For now though, here’s me hoping that the folks at Twitter figure it out before too long.

Okay, that’s it for today. Go forth and conquer.  (And JackCall me.)

Cheers,

Olivier

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