In February, Twitter users were united in criticism against the company’s planned changes to the delivery of Tweets to feeds. Rather than allowing users to browse Tweets chronologically, with the most recent appearing at the top and older ones appearing lower down, Twitter would now be based on an algorithm that serves the messages it deems most relevant to you first. So, for example, if you interact with Person A more than you do Person B, Person A’s messages will be more prominent in your feed than Person B’s.
Many felt the Twitter algorithm update undermined the social network’s unique selling point (allowing users to follow events and news in real-time), and a large portion threatened to shut their accounts and leave the site altogether. With the functionality now being rolled out, whether such concerns are actually grounded in reality will be put to the test. But what do the changes mean for brands looking to gain awareness, build engagement, and ensure their tweets are seen by their followers?
The Facebook Model
Algorithmic feeds have been a feature of Facebook ever since the platform introduced EdgeRank in 2011 in an effort to make the site’s News Feed more relevant and useful. The switch was greeted with similar suspicion then as the Twitter algorithm update has been greeted with now and that’s no surprise. By taking something users see as deeply personal (their feed; in other words, their curated stream of interests) and putting it in the hands of someone (or more aptly, something – a computer) else, social networks threaten the personalised approach that they’ve made their names on.
However, it works. Facebook has gone from strength to strength since 2011, so it’s little surprise that Twitter has moved in this direction. Nor indeed is it a surprise that the ascendant (and Facebook-owned) Instagram has also gone algorithmic too, citing user-experience as the driving factor “You may be surprised to learn that people miss on average 70 percent of their feeds,” the company said in a blog in mid-March. “To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most. The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post.”
But is it really based on giving users what they want, when they want it? Well, yes and no. Despite the protestations of Twitter users, an algorithmic feed is a good idea that can deliver much more value. Now, instead of having to scroll through endless messages that you may only be peripherally interested in, you’ll be served the tweets you’re likely to find most compelling based on the feeds you’ve interacted with in the past. In other words, you’re now less likely to miss that funny or insightful tweet just because it was sent after you went to bed.
Indeed, the switch has already been pre-empted. In January 2015, Twitter introduced a feature called ‘While you were away’, which curates a small collection of tweets Twitter deems most relevant to the user and serves it to them at the top of their feed if they haven’t accessed it for a number of hours. It’s a small change, but it’s worked, giving users what they want quickly, easily, and with little disruption (just scroll away from ‘While you were away…’ and you’re done with it).
But a switch to algorithmic feeds is much more than a small addition, and the reasons behind it are more complex than mere user experience. Twitter has been struggling to monetise itself for a number of years now, and the advertising platform it’s developed to help solve the problem hasn’t delivered much more than irrelevant, spammy ads that users fail to engage with. Even genuine innovations such as Twitter Moments have yet to gain traction, and though signs of potential revenue streams are emerging, there’s still a long way to go.
Twitter’s algorithm update paves the way for more effective monetisation. Users are much more likely to engage with friends, like-minded individuals, and celebrities’ feeds than brand feeds, so just as EdgeRank made it more difficult for brands to gain organic traction on Facebook, this does the same on Twitter. That means that brands will now have to start paying to gain reach, making those ad units and sponsored tweets much more integral to a brand’s social strategy, and therefore making Twitter much more viable financially. The same reasoning is likely driving Instagram’s change too.
The rollout of Twitter’s algorithm-based feeds has already started, with users noticing that their settings now come with an option to turn the algorithm on or off (it’s off by default). Many have chosen to keep it turned off and are imploring others to do the same, firmly underlining that the idea remains unpopular with a significant portion of Twitter’s userbase. But then, the same could be said of Facebook’s EdgeRank in 2011, and that remains both in place and successful enough to make Facebook the dominant social platform.
Whether the changes, and the controversy they’ve caused, will continue to represent a serious bone of user contention remains to be seen. But even if some users continue to be vocal about their discontent, it’s brands who should be most wary. By changing their approach, Twitter has ensured that brands have to work harder to reach their audience, and will likely have to pay to do so. This certainly doesn’t alter the importance of Twitter to a brand’s overall strategy, but it means that strategy must be much more carefully considered, with Twitter, like Facebook, now considered a Paid Channel as much as it is an Organic one.
Over to you, what do you think of Twitter’s algorithm update? Let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you.