Twitter is testing the concept of longer tweets, allowing a chosen few to access up to 280 characters.
A blog post from a Twitter product manager explained the radical thinking:
“We want every person around the world to easily express themselves on Twitter, so we’re doing something new: we’re going to try out a longer limit, 280 characters, in languages impacted by cramming (which is all except Japanese, Chinese, and Korean).”
Naturally, the Twitterazzi are up in arms. But before taking a deeper look at Twitter, it’s revealing to look at two other brands that changed their formula only to be greeted by pitch forks from the consumer base.
Let’s rewind the tape to 1985 when Coke made the strategic call to change the taste of its classic product and introduced — Maestro, drum roll please — “New Coke.” I wonder how much money the company spent with naming consultancies and on focus groups before settling on this name.
The response to New Coke didn’t leave much to interpretation. One letter to the Coke’s CEO Roberto Goizueta addressed him as “Chief Dodo, The Coca-Cola Company.” For those not familiar with a dodo, it’s an extinct flightless bird with a stout body, slumpy wings and a large head.
It’s easy to take shots at Coke for messing with such a popular product, but people forget Coke’s market share had been eroding for 15 consecutive years. They needed to do something to change the trajectory. Seventy-nine days later, the company gave in to the masses and reverted back to the classic coke product. The marketing gaffe served as a sales catalyst, once again proving the adage that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
Turing our attention to Netflix —
In 2011 Neflix went all in on video streaming and essentially turned 95 percent of its customer base at the time, those subscribing to the get-a-DVD-in-the-mail service, into second-class citizens.
I believe it was Shakespeare who said, “Hell hath no fury like a consumer scorned.” This outcry triggered enough negative media coverage to think that CEO Reed Hastings might star in a Greek tragedy.
Many journalists like Lance Ulanoff penned obituaries for Netflix:
“Netflex does not have the cash or, possibly, even the buying power of competitors like Google, Amazon, and Apple. What’s more, switching from one service to another is inconsequential. I can switch back and forth in my home right now, searching for the best movies on the service of my choice. With Netflix making almost no headway in accessing first-run films for instant streaming, and no hurdles to stop consumers like me from switching, Netflix’s future looks very dire indeed.”
Unlike Coke, Mr. Hastings and Netflix stayed true to the master plan. It took some time, and the jabs kept coming, but by the time Netflix debuted “House of Cards” in 2013, everyone had jumped on the video streaming bandwagon.
No doubt both Coke and Netflix did their homework and conducted focus groups that indicated consumers would buy into their change in plans. The challenge is that it’s very difficult to accurately capture the emotional reaction to a simulation.
Which brings us back to Twitter.
Are those who use Twitter like Coke drinkers so emotionally vested in the product that a major change will cause a Twitter Spring? I think the answer is no.
I like Twitter. I learn from Twitter. I enjoy the word Jujitsu on Twitter. Yet, putting tweets from the White House aside, I don’t have mood swings from Twitter.
I view Twitter’s plight similar to that of Netflix. With its user base stagnated at 328 million, which limits potential revenue, Twitter needs a game changer. Netflix bet the farm and the ranch on streaming video. It knew that mailing plastic discs to people wasn’t a sustainable business model. It needed to do something different or it wouldn’t be around three years out.
Check out the basis for Twitter’s supposed game changer:
“Our research shows us that the character limit is a major cause of frustration for people Tweeting in English, but it is not for those Tweeting in Japanese. Also, in all markets, when people don’t have to cram their thoughts into 140 characters and actually have some to spare, we see more people Tweeting — which is awesome!”
I think the research is flawed. The use of the phrase “major cause of frustration” would indicate that when people come up against the 140-character limit, their emotions get the better of them. They’re yelling or throwing porcelain figurines against the wall. Does that sound like anyone you know (besides the guy in the White House)?
Even if you don’t think the research is flawed, let’s apply that scientific algorithm called common sense. Extending a tweet’s character count from 140 to 280 is essentially Twitter’s answer to Netflix’s switch to video streaming.
If you take Twitter’s public statement at face value, the company believes the path to growth involves more activity from current users as opposed to increasing the number of users.
I suppose there might be some folks out there who would tweet more if they had 280 characters instead of 140 characters.
But does allowing 280-character tweets sound like a new business model? Will it change the game for Twitter?
I don’t think the Twitter story is going to have a happy ending.