Twitter’s Terrible New Metric

Why millions of new users per day is a bad thing, not a good thing

Note: this blog is published by Jan Dawson, Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research. Jackdaw Research provides research, analysis, and consulting on the consumer technology market, and works with some of the largest consumer technology companies in the world. We offer data sets on the US wireless and pay TV markets, analysis of major players in the industry, and custom consulting work ranging from hour-long phone calls to weeks-long projects. For more on Jackdaw Research and its services, please visit our website. If you want to contact me directly, you’ll find various ways to do so here.

In the shareholder letter that accompanied Twitter’s Q3 earnings today, the company said:

consider that each day there are millions of people that come to Twitter to sign up for a new account or reactivate an existing account that has not been active in the last 30 days.

That sounds great, right? Progress! And yet this very metric is the perfect illustration of why Twitter hasn’t actually been growing quickly at all. Let’s break it down:

  • Starting point: “each day there are millions of people” — so that’s at least 2 million per day every day
  • There are ~90 days in a quarter, so 2 million times 90 is 180 million, all of whom count as MAUs in the respective months when they engage in this behavior, and could be potential MAUs for the quarter if they stick around for a couple of months
  • Over the course of this past quarter, Twitter only added 4 million new MAUs
  • That implies one of two things: either 2.2% or less (4/180) of that 180 million actually stuck around long enough to be an MAU at the end of the quarter, or a very large proportion of those who had been active users at the end of last quarter left
  • In fact, it might even get worse. Based on the same 2m/day logic, 60 million plus people become MAUs every month on this basis, meaning this behavior contributes at least 60 million of Twitter’s MAUs each quarter (quarterly MAUs are an average of the three monthly MAU figures) even if all 60 million never log in again. On a base of just over 300 million, that means around a fifth of Twitter’s MAUs each month are in this category
  • Bear in mind throughout all this that I’m taking the bear minimum meaning of “millions” here — 2 million. The real numbers could be higher.

In other words, this metric — which is intended to highlight Twitter’s growth opportunity — actually highlights just how bad Twitter is at retaining users. Because Twitter doesn’t report daily active users or churn numbers, we have to engage in exercises like this to try to get a sense of what the true picture looks like. But it isn’t pretty.

Why is retention so bad? Well, Twitter talked up a new topic-based onboarding process in its shareholder letter too. In theory, this should be helping — I’ve argued that topic-based rather than account-based follows are actually the way to go. But I signed up for a new test account this morning to see what this new onboarding process looks like, and the end results weren’t good.

Here’s what the topic based onboarding process looks like:

So far, so good — I picked a combination of things I’m really interested in and a few others just to make sure there were a decent number of topics selected. I was also asked to upload contacts from Gmail or Outlook, which I declined to do because this was just a test account. I was then presented with a set of “local” accounts (I’m currently in the Bay Area on a business trip so got offered lots of San Francisco-based accounts including the MTA, SFGate, and Karl the Fog — fair enough). I opted to follow these 21 accounts as well, and finished the signup process. Here’s what my timeline looked like when I was done:

It’s literally empty — there is no content there. And bizarrely, even though I opted to follow 21 local accounts, I’m only shown as following 20 here. As I’m writing now, it’s roughly an hour later and there are now 9 tweets in that timeline, three each from TechCrunch and the Chronicle, and several others. This is a terrible onboarding experience for new users — it suggests that there’s basically no content, even though I followed all the suggested accounts and picked a bunch of topics. Bear in mind that I’m an avid Twitter user and a huge fan of the service — it provides enormous value to me. But based on this experience I’d never come away with that impression. No wonder those millions of new users every day don’t stick around. Why would you?

In that screenshot above, the recommendation is to “Follow people and topics you find interesting to see their Tweets in your timeline”. But isn’t that what I just did? As a new user, how do I feel at this point? And how do I even follow additional topics from here (and when am I going to see anything relating to the topics I already said I was interested in)? Twitter is suggesting even more SF-centric accounts top right, along with Ellen, who seems to be the vanilla ice cream of Twitter, but that’s it. If I want to use Twitter to follow news rather than people I know, which is how Twitter is increasingly talking about itself, where do I go from here?

I hate beating up on the companies I follow — I generally try to be more constructive than this, because I think that’s more helpful and frankly kinder. But I and countless others have been saying for years now that Twitter is broken in fundamental ways, and there are obvious solutions for fixing it. Yet Twitter keeps going with this same old terrible brokenness for new users, despite repeated promises to fix things. This, fundamentally, is why Twitter isn’t growing as it should be, and why people are losing faith that it will ever turn things around.

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