Twitter expanding from 140 characters: Why it won’t solve the growth problem

James is editor in chief of TechForge Media, with a passion for how technologies influence business and several Mobile World Congress events under his belt. James has interviewed a variety of leading figures in his career, from former Mafia boss Michael Franzese, to Steve Wozniak, and Jean Michel Jarre. James can be found tweeting at @James_T_Bourne.


It has practically been an unmissable story: Twitter is set to expand its offering to more than 140 characters per tweet. To what exactly, nobody is sure. Re/code, who originally reported the story in September but came back to it on January 5, believe it is 10,000 characters, the current amount users are allowed per direct message.

Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO and co-founder, posted a missive on January 6 which was low on specifics but high on intent. “We’ve spent a lot of time observing what people are doing on Twitter, and we see them taking screenshots of text and tweeting it,” he wrote, before taking a screenshot and tweeting it. “Instead, what if that text…was actually text? Text that could be searched. Text that could be highlighted. That’s more utility and power.”

It certainly makes sense. Bow to your user base, if that is what they want. But this brings about a key question: what is Twitter’s USP? Is it the 140 character limit, or the real-time messaging element? Dorsey argues the latter, writing: “At its core Twitter is public messaging. A simple way to say something, to anyone, that everyone in the world can see instantly.”

Indeed, an argument can also be made that the world has moved on from 140 characters. The first ever tweet sent by Dorsey was on March 21 2006. The smartphones we know and love today were still on the cusp of launch. Mobile apps, now ubiquitous, were barely in the embryonic stage. The character limit was brought about so it could fit into a single SMS message. Have things moved on?

David Parkinson, head of digital for Africa, Middle East and India at Nissan, argues brevity is the soul of wit in this regard. “It’s clear Twitter are looking at more ways to extend their user base allowing people to tweet more than 140 characters,” he says. “Of course growth is a viable strategy, especially if you’re looking to increase the number of people that you can advertise across.

“From my perspective, it’s Twitter’s brevity that is its core strength, and complexity of use is its main issue to less tech-savvy people signing up,” he adds.

This is a key issue at Twitter HQ. Dorsey inherited a few issues when he took over as chief exec again last year. The latest financial results, Q315, saw quarterly revenue at $569 million, up 58% year over year. Yet the company continued to be unprofitable, losing $0.20 per share compared to $0.29 the previous year. Monthly active users were at 320 million for the third quarter, up 11% year over year.

While some analysts were unconvinced at the figures, some of the product launches, such as Moments, launched in October, reveals an interesting step. “Moments represents a real fundamental shift in our thinking,” Dorsey explained at the third quarter analyst call. “It questions the reverse chronological timeline. It provides a chronological narrative, a complete story that is human-curated. So it gives you much deeper insight.”

Parkinson agrees, but argues it is not the be all and end all. “The content is there, and Moments is a great way to try and widen the appeal and bring that content to the surface, but until they look to focus more on the UX journey and ease of use for a newcomer, 140 or 10,000 characters, it won’t solve their growth problem,” he says.

But what does the proposed change mean for marketers? More space to get their message across, or more chance of consumers turning off? Sharon Flaherty is managing director of BrandContent, a content marketing agency. She argues from an SEO and keywords perspective, more room to play with is good news. “Expanding the limit will benefit marketers because they will be able to advertise an audience more accurately,” she says. “While consumers may have more ads targeted at them in their feeds, there is a chance they are more relevant to them which could prove less annoying and actually useful.

“In theory, this should mean brands get more engagement with their Twitter ads, but it could be spammy for users if Twitter does not get this right,” Flaherty adds.

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