Twitter's Problem; Not Connecting with Mainstream Users

Twitter is going public. If you are an employee, investor, or simply a tech IPO lover, this is a very exciting time. While there is much to like about Twitter, I’m noticing a trend that is somewhat concerning; Twitter isn’t connecting with mainstream users.

Twitter had 215 million monthly active users (MAUs) as of June 30, 2013, a 44% increase from 2012. In today’s mobile world, an ecosystem with 215 million users is a very respectable number, but a 44% user growth rate isn’t superb.  In the U.S., Twitter saw only 32% year-over-year user growth to 49 million MAUs, adding just 1 million users in the second quarter. For a well established ecosystem, these numbers aren’t exactly thrilling. 

Earlier this week, one of my Facebook “friends” posted a question on her timeline, “What’s the deal with Twitter? Should I do it?” Within one hour, five people answered - all with a “no”.  Surveying my non-tech social circle, Twitter usage is abysmal.  A quick check with my high school teacher acquaintance led to an expected answer, no one at school talks about or uses Twitter.  At a recent state fair that saw upwards of 160,000 visitors on a Saturday, tweets mentioning the event numbered in the dozens. The list of anecdotal data points showing Twitter’s lack of connection with mainstream users goes on and on. 

While Twitter is proving valuable to a select group of users, the platform is not exactly hitting mainstream usage similar to how Facebook (1.1 billion users) conquered the world, or even messaging apps such as WhatsApp (300 million users) are trending.

What is going on? I suspect Twitter is not appealing to the masses in a world where Facebook made it socially acceptable to share and more intimate social apps, like Snapchat, are using their “coolness” and “ease” to flourish.  Many are confused with the concept of Twitter since the company really isn’t a classic social network, but instead an information aggregator. When a user joins, they are bombarded with suggested follows. If a user bypasses the suggested follows page, it is somewhat unclear what is the next step, especially if their current social circle is not well represented on Twitter. It takes time to find interesting channels (people, companies, concepts) worth following. Rather than being a social network where people use Twitter to update friends with actions and ideas (that’s more for Instagram and Snapchat), I think of Twitter more like an improved form of television, where a user creates a list of channels to watch or follow. Corporations, brands, and news organizations desperately want a Twitter presence to reach potential customers, further highlighting the television metaphor. The big question is if such a concept can appeal to mainstream users.

Heading into Twitter’s IPO, I suspect user growth will remain a key topic and concern among investors. While management will be judged on revenue and profit growth, including user utilization rates, I think the company faces an uphill battle with user growth as competing services continue to fight for mindshare in the maturing mobile computing era.  I see the value in Twitter, but I’m concerned that mainstream users will never give the service a chance.