I didn't attend SXSW in 2007 but, boy, did I hear about it. That was the year a new messaging app called Twitter officially launched at the festival.
By July, three months after SXSW, Twitter claimed to have about 350,000 users and was signing almost 2,000 new users a day. A year later, Twitter was a full-blown cultural phenomenon. In fact, Twitter made a substantial impact on some of the largest cultural events in the last few years including the Arab Spring revolution in 2010-11 and the unrest in Ferguson in 2014. At the time, I was working at digital agency Digitas where Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey were making the rounds. The model was simple: the 140-character limit kept each tweet under the universal SMS 160-character limit, enabling the platform to capitalize on the coming smartphone revolution. It was perfect; a personalized, comprehensive RSS feed on steroids.
The implications for marketers were massive -- an instant broadcast to your top customers and prospects. Meanwhile, Facebook was still just starting to monetize. For ad agencies, the scramble to shift from standard banner ads to new "content formats" created the need for content strategies, community management and ushered in a transformational period in advertising.
Both Facebook and Twitter started to mull IPOs at about the same time. Facebook went first, in May, 2012. Leading up to the IPO date, the enthusiasm for Facebook was still mixed. The social network had shunned ad agencies initially, opting instead for a direct to client sales model.
Meanwhile, Twitter had gone out of its way to build key agency relationships. Adam Bain, Dick Costolo and other key Twitter executives were regulars at the top New York ad agencies, collaborating on new Twitter products and seeking advice. After Facebook's disastrous IPO, in which shares plummeted 50 percent in the months following, the tech star weathered a heap of criticism.
Twitter meanwhile, determined to learn from Facebook's missteps, executed a much smoother IPO. Six weeks later, in January 2014, Twitter's stock had nearly tripled. The rest is history. After that, the tides turned for both platforms. The last two years have been a steady downfall for Twitter, while Facebook it now seems, can do no wrong. Twitter's stock value, now in the "teens," is a fraction of its IPO price.
Last week at SXSW Interactive 2016, journalists discussed Twitter's demise and even used the term "irrelevant." Remember BlackBerry? Suddenly, Twitter looks a lot like BlackBerry (RIM) two years ago.
As BlackBerry's demise unfolded, who were the loyalists? Politicians, corporate executives and Wall Street titans. And what did BlackBerry do when its user base was plummeting? Well, not much, and they did not reach out to those core users. The company's leadership was paralyzed. The consequences of every decision were so magnified, it became very difficult to do anything. Now three years later, BlackBerry is a shadow of its former self, unable to support even basic smart phone apps (last week the company announced its BB10 device will no longer support Facebook). Will Twitter follow the same sad trajectory? I hope not. Here's my advice for the current Twitter team:
1. Reach out and enlist your biggest fans.
Make it a priority to connect with those that will be remain loyal to you, your brand or your company. Since Twitter has hundreds of millions of active monthly users, you're sure to find staunch supporters who will support you through thick and thin.
2. Reach out and enlist your biggest enemies.
BlackBerry critics made up the Crackberry Forums, a notoriously fierce bunch. Instead of shying away from criticism, use it to your advantage. Enlisting the council of your critics can help you to harness energy and create a game-changing plan. The worst thing you can do is ignore your customers and not change a thing. Airlines, in particular, are bombarded with comments and criticism online. Every flight delay or cancelation provides an opportunity for travelers to unload their frustrations. Instead of ignoring complaints, offer help and set a path for improvement.
3. Be bold! Don't settle for incremental improvements.
When you are in trouble, you have to swing for the fences. Experiment and hack.
A "take-no-prisoners" approach to relationship building and product development is the only option.
Nine years after its initial splash, Twitter is not what many thought it would be. It is something very special though. Everyone -- including Twitter itself -- needs to stop the Facebook comparisons and let Twitter be Twitter, which is not Facebook Lite, but something uniquely all its own.