Spotlight — Imagining a new future for Twitter
Note: This project was created as self-initiated, independent research and is no way connected to or endorsed by Twitter or any other company referenced throughout. All moral rights etc. remain with copyright owners — Jamie.
As a product designer and strategist, I love to use design as a tool for exploring solutions to complex business problems.
Throughout my career I have helped dozens of companies to realise their ambitions, solve problems and reach new audiences through the use of digital technology.
Working almost exclusively with early-stage startups or new projects within an organisation, when it comes to creating a rich and varied portfolio, there can often be very little to show to potential clients or employers in relation to the amount of work that goes into the strategy, planning and prototyping phases.
While it is easy to show how your A/B testing of an established product feature improved conversion by 0.5% which amounted to an additional £1.5 million in annual transactions, the truth is that a large number of my projects fall into a very grey area where they often never see the light of day due to senior personnel changes, budgetary reductions, changes in legislation or any number of external reasons beyond my control.
With that in mind and with the very pertinent question of ‘what’s next for Twitter?’ within our industry, I wanted to use those same skills and techniques to explore a potential new route for Twitter.
The Twitter dilemma
When Twitter announced earlier this month that their earnings for the quarter once again hadn’t met expectations, many began to wonder when and how exactly Jack Dorsey was going to ‘right the ship’.
From spending even a small amount of time researching online, you soon find a multitude of publications, both traditional and contemporary, who conclude that after a decade at the forefront of the social media revolution, Twitter should gracefully step aside and consign itself to the annals of history along with Myspace, Bebo and the litany of others whose fate had risen and fallen in a similar way:
- “A eulogy for Twitter” — The Atlantic (2014)
- “The decay of Twitter” — The Atlantic (2015)
- “The end of Twitter” — The New Yorker (2016)
- “Why ‘Twitter’s Final Days’ Has the Ring of Truth” — Time (2016)
It led me to think, ‘what is actually wrong with Twitter?’
While various theories exist about the cause of Twitter’s supposed demise — stagnating user base, difficulty to master, lack of profitability; Emily Jane Fox of Vanity Fair argues that outside influence is as much to blame as anything else,
“The issue is Wall Street expectations, but it is also Twitter’s resistance to accepting itself as it is. Its goal should be to keep its core users, who live and die by the service, happy, and not throw itself at the changing whims of an impossible-to-please Wall Street that may never be satisfied with what the company is able to do.” — Emily Jane Fox
That lukewarm investor response is in part due to the platform’s inability to significantly raise its monthly active users (317 million in Q3 2016) to the heady heights of rival services such as Facebook and Google, the latter of which had 1.79 billion monthly active users as of September 30, 2016.
The results of a continually under-performing stock valuation, $18.73 (correct at the time of publication — 11/18/2016), compared to $26 when the company launched its IPO in November 2013, invariably hints at a possible future takeover bid despite recent rumblings failing to materialise from front-runners such as Disney, Google and Salesforce.
So how exactly does Twitter re-alter the course of one of the great social media success stories of the last decade?
As part of this study to better understand how Twitter ended up in this position and how they might fix it, I wanted the solution to not just improve their bottom line or share price but also demonstrate how they could reimpart themselves on the cultural zeitgeist in such a way that it becomes a greater part of the fabric of entertainment and news consumption and steps out of the shadow of commonly-held perception that it is a place where anonymous trolling and hate-speech roam free; a sentiment which has dogged the platform more than any other in recent years.
Twitter to its credit has tried to implement various measures to stimulate growth in the platform over the past couple of years with mixed results:
- Changing the format — Twitter lives and breathes based on the quirky value of its 140 character limit however earlier this year the strategy named internally as “Beyond 140” mentioned the potential to increase the Twitter messaging capacity up to 10,000 characters.
- Changing personnel — Replacing Dick Costolo in October 2015, Jack Dorsey returned as CEO following the reshuffle in 2008 which saw him removed in favour of fellow co-Founder, Evan Williams.
- Reducing costs — Dorsey announced in October 2016 that they were cutting staff numbers by up to 9% in an effort to ‘create greater focus and efficiency’ to enable their goal towards profitability in 2017.
- The great algorithm debate — When Twitter announced that they would be switching from the classic chronological feed to something more akin to Facebook’s algorithm-powered timeline, users everywhere were up in arms. By March of this year changes had been made across the service, with the option to opt out of any of the new changes made possible.
- Building its portfolio — While Twitter has acquired over 50 companies since 2008, its two most valuable assets in helping to improve its offering to the general public, were thought to be Vine and Periscope. It was announced in October this year that the video sharing service, Vine was to be discontinued.
From the outside it seemed that Twitter were looking at multiple ways of increasing their reach and value by trialling improvements that touched every core business vertical from product to technical, operations and acquisitions.
The area in which I had previously felt held the greatest potential was further capitalised in September when they announced that they were moving further towards brand partnerships through the use of live streaming, particularly in purchasing the streaming rights to a limited number of NFL games in a deal rumoured to be worth $10 million.
The synergy in this particular deal is clear: the NFL is big business and with it come some of the highest revenues associated with sport and entertainment found anywhere in the world.
For example, brands considering an advertising slot at the Superbowl in future should bear in mind that 30-second slots in 2016 cost upwards of $5 million each, an increase of 12,500% from the $42,000 paid in 1967 for an ad spot during Super Bowl I (source: Forbes).
The second reason why the deal could be valuable is that Twitter already has a dominant position in the world of ‘dual-screening’.
Dual screening, the modern phenomena whereby people utilise second screens (mobile, tablet, etc.) while also watching Television is on the rise.
With audiences in America estimated to be watching over five hours of television per day (source: Nielsen) and 84% of smartphone owners dual-screening, these second-screen ‘moments’ are becoming “a barometer for what people think, what they’re curious about and what they want to explore while they’re watching TV”.
A report by eBay earlier this year also found that shopper engagement for baking products increased on their platform by 67% during the screening of the UK’s Great British Bake Off, rising to 133% within in one hour afterwards.
Why don’t users just use dedicated event apps?
While many organisations and broadcasters have developed dedicated apps for large-scale events such as Eurovision and The Superbowl, there is a fundamental difference between consistently converting users onto new dedicated platforms for dual-screening and accessing an existing platform which helps to leverage both new and existing users towards the targeted event.
One major positive for Twitter is that this leveraging can occur without disrupting existing behaviour.
During the 2016 Oscars, Twitter recorded a record peak of 440,000 tweets per minute which when combined with a total of 24.2 million Oscar-related tweets, highlights that it is exactly the right type of platform to provide value to the millions of fans worldwide, provided that it takes on board the aforementioned point for the need to ‘keep its core users, who live and die by the service, happy’.
While the NFL deal shows Twitter’s desire to innovate, especially away from its core 140-character messaging service, it also highlights a number of additional blockers which it will have to contend with before it can declare this new direction as a success.
In the search for valuable new content streams, Twitter must begin to embroil itself in the protracted bidding wars which traditional media and tech companies such as Netflix and Amazon are finding themselves in on a more regular basis.
Consider again, the Great British Bake Off which up until this year had a welcome home at the BBC, who were forced to withdraw their bid to continue hosting the show when their original bid of around £15 million, a doubling of its previous payment to host the show was trumped by rival Channel 4’s reported winning bid of £25 million per season on an initial 3 year deal.
Netflix in comparison are rumoured to have spent $200 million on the rights to Disney films and TV programming for a single year in 2011 so while the path to content supremacy may bring strategic and financial benefits to Twitter, it will also come at a cost which in their current stock position may prove difficult to continually raise the kind of war chest which the teams at places such as Netflix, Sky and Amazon have at their disposal.
In investigating how Twitter might be able to achieve greater success within the content and entertainment industries, as a product designer I wanted to investigate how developing an entirely new product, one which could quite easily sit within the existing Twitter suite, could provide a more enjoyable user experience, improve customer engagement and increase revenue opportunities.
Spotlight is a social communication platform made specifically to be the default second screen for the important cultural moments in our lives.
Authenticated solely via Twitter, Spotlight is the conduit between existing large-scale broadcasters and organisations and the intimate relationship they currently lack with their viewers and their second screens.
Developed natively and powered by the sophisticated infrastructure that drives the core Twitter platform, Spotlight is purpose-built for the high demands of real-time, continuous social engagement.
The core pillars
From all of the research conducted and referenced above I knew there were a number of principles that I wanted to include within the design that would be key to addressing and overcoming some of Twitter’s existing barriers in the eye of potential users.
- Curation over firehose — With approx. 500 million new tweets per day, users of Spotlight need to have a curated approach to seeing the information they want through the aggregation of tweets and other exclusive content.
- Private communication — Users wary of engaging on Twitter due to privacy concerns should have the ability to interact in more private, community-driven spaces.
- Focus on events — Rather than compete with Twitter’s 24/7 messaging approach, Spotlight would focus on the most valuable cultural ‘events’ in order to create unique spaces for people to gather and share in a single unifying experience.
- Customised second screen experience — Using the mobile device as a personal hub for creating your own experience, whether that is in choosing what type of content to view in your activity feed or replaying the key action from the game, Spotlight would allow for personal customisation while still enjoying a more generic experience on the primary screen.
Developing the UI
Working to native Android functionality and coupled with material design principles I built a set of visually rich screens to highlight the four core features of the platform:
- Activity — Curated, real-time analysis
The core structure of the app is based around the aggregated reporting of key cultural events. e.g. Superbowl, Eurovision Song contest, World Cup etc. This takes the existing Twitter approach several steps further by introducing curated content from both public Twitter accounts, content partners and exclusive contributors. The chronological stream is used to provide maximum real-time information, analysis and content to users on their second screen when they need it most.
2 . Groups — The hyperlocal, connected experience
One interesting technological development is the creation of ‘hyperlocal’ communication hotspots to further encourage small groups of people to get involved in direct communication / sharing of content. Using a technology setup such as iBeacons or multicast-enabled Wifi it provides the ability to connect multiple devices found within a given area e.g. living room, sports bar under one experience.
This would allow for polls and pop quizzes to take place during events and the sharing of messaging and content with members of a specified group. The feature would also mitigate against common claims that content surfaced on Twitter is often too public and is therefore a barrier to converting new users.
With intuitive preference settings, users can decided which messages remain within the privacy of the local group and which are available for redistribution by through the use of sharing / retweeting etc.
3. The Spotlight tool — Personalised, interactive media
While interactive televisions have in part driven the desire to see events with an increased level of customisation i.e. multiple camera angles, additional content, alternative commentary, the user experience of many of these interfaces are clumsy and often controlled using the universal remote control which fails on any number of usability levels.
By using the Spotlight tool during an event, users are able to find the most memorable or interesting clips from the main broadcast directly on their phones which they can view from varying camera angles, favourite and re-share within the terms of the broadcaster’s agreement.
The benefit of this approach is to allow personalised control of content without disturbing the main primary screen view for everyone in the room.
4. Advertising — Contextual, targeted, actionable
With the increasingly rich segmentation of incoming data from users, both in public and private spaces, the platform will be able to take a much more targeted approach to advertising.
By creating a stronger connection between the content shown on a user’s primary screen and the contextual advertising that users see on their secondary device, we could unify the experience so that adverts / branded interactions shown in the user’s activity feed could match that of the primary screen which for an event such as the Superbowl would allow for increased reach and an expected higher level of brand awareness and conversion where applicable.
Benefits to broadcasters
- Broadcasters and organisations will benefit by collaborating with Twitter to leverage its substantial user base and likewise encourage their own viewers to use the Spotlight app across their own multiple channels.
- Leveraging existing dual-screening behaviour to bring fans together in one place without committing development budget to develop proprietary apps.
- Gain co-licensing revenue from Twitter for access to users, content and partners.
- Provides reliable data and analysis to better understand when their content is being consumed by and when to supplement or replace standardised TAM (Television Audience Measurement) findings.
Benefits to advertisers
- Provides the ability to synchronise advertising between primary and secondary devices on a large scale. This improves total reach and allows for offers to be actionable rather than passive or instructional (currently the case using Television).
- Data gathered can be analysed as part of the marketing spend review to assess the ROI of ‘connected advertising’ where slots are synchronised across more than one channel.
Benefits to Twitter
- Using Twitter authentication will create a larger, active user base.
- Forcing Twitter authentication across platforms allows for a more consolidated picture of users complete with interaction history, demographic information and behaviours which in turn can be used to implement better targeted advertising during and after events and on the main Twitter platform.
- Increased brand awareness through cross-promotion via broadcast and organisational partner channels.
- Ability to power the new platform using existing proprietary technologies.
- Lower operational costs due to reduction in sole licensing agreements. Under Spotlight, co-licensing agreements could be made with broadcasters for the rights to replay highlights and snapshots of the most interesting moments in an event. By not investing as heavily in exclusive streaming rights for content it will allow for existing resources to be used to create a more shallow, yet widespread coverage of events around the world.
- Creation of a new vertical within the parent company that adds additional users, revenue and reputation.
While it is clear that there is no silver bullet, neither technological, operational or product-related that can jump start Twitter’s stagnating growth alone, an orchestrated route may exist by bringing together the disparate entities of the main Twitter platform, Periscope and any new platforms, even something akin to Spotlight to build a portfolio approach, each complimenting the others’ core benefits.
Understanding the defining role that Twitter plays during world events such as the Arab Spring or US elections and again within cultural moments such as the Oscars, it is easy to understand that with the right product / market fit it has infinite potential to define itself as one of the most relevant and culturally valuable platforms in the world beyond its earliest incarnation as the micro-blogging social network.
Looking ahead, a move such as the one proposed by Spotlight would not only increase Twitter’s bottom line but should a potential acquisition remain on the cards then additional synergies could be created for major entertainment / publishing groups such as TimeWarner, News Corporation or Comcast in a full acquisition.
Thank you for taking the time to time to view my work. If you have any comments or questions please get in touch.
Jamie Hylands is a Designer and owner of Manaseven, a UX strategy and design company based in Scotland.