Published in Jul-Aug 2023
Have you ever heard of a brand where the CEO did everything to destroy it, but the brand was so resilient it just kept on going? Well, let me introduce you to Twitter and Elon Musk.
It’s not that Musk is damaging Twitter on purpose. It’s just the result of his irrational strategy (if indeed there is one) to annoy as many users as possible. I am quite sure that in his head he feels he is infallible. Unfortunately, that logic is a bit misplaced.
At SpaceX and Tesla, Musk was led to believe that anything goes when dealing with consumers. However, the reality is that the resilience of those brands was based on the fact that they were basically monopolies. While SpaceX’s main product, reusable engine thrusters, still faces no challenge yet, Tesla’s competitors have recently taken their electric vehicle (EV) product lines more seriously.
Tesla is no longer the giant it used to be in the EV segment. EV registrations for Q1 2023 placed Tesla with a 23.6% market share (compared to 21.6% last year), with BYD Co. (14.7%) and Volkswagen (7.5%) following closely behind. In desperation, Musk reduced his price again, making the shares tumble by four percent on the New York Stock Exchange.
Twitter too, if you define it very narrowly as a limited-text-based social platform, had the advantage of being unique in what it offered, so that although it did take a huge battering, it kept on ticking. It was pretty much like putting The Rock in a wrestling championship with amateur wrestlers. Even if The Rock is drunk, you know he is going to beat the daylights out of everyone else in the ring on any given day. In fact, none of Twitter’s potential challengers (Bluesky, Clubhouse, Cohost, CounterSocial, Discord, Mastodon, Spill, T2, Tumblr or WT.Social) made any sort of dent in its existence.
This all changed on July 5, when the biggest and meanest fighter decided to jump into the ring with Musk. The challenger, of course, was Meta, with Mark Zuckerberg at the helm and the introduction of Threads as a serious contender to Twitter. To make things interesting, so far Threads is free to use, while Twitter is slowly forcing users to pay to use advanced features like a blue tick.
Product features aside, this battle is now between an unpredictable and erratic marketer and the savviest one the digital age has ever seen.
The response to Zuckerberg’s move was so huge, it set a world record when Threads surpassed 100 million user sign-ups in less than a week. Daily users have settled down from an initial 50 million to 25 million. This is quite an achievement for a new product in the social app segment.
Now, whether Threads will continue to pose a serious challenge to Twitter remains to be seen. True to form, Musk is not helping. His strategic reaction to the challenge made against his well-established brand has been to… well, destroy the legacy. He has just declared that he will be substituting the beloved Twitter logo with an X. Absolute insanity or genius that we cannot recognise? Most marketers are putting their money on the former.
Meta, by the way, also has had its share of missteps. While it was a stroke of genius to launch Threads at a time when the market was seriously annoyed with Twitter, Meta rushed in with a very stripped-down version of the app, leading to disappointment among the first batch of users who signed up. In fact, daily users have dropped by 70% to 13 million. It was a calculated risk by Meta to strike during a weak moment in the competition, but the move may not pay dividends in the long run, unless Threads quickly adds the features users take for granted.
For example, Threads does not have a hashtag feature, meaning users cannot effectively search and filter content by topic or trends. Other flaws in the platform include the absence of direct message features; a post once published cannot be edited nor can the alt text be modified; there is no trending section and there are no advertisements. Meta has promised to introduce most of these features very soon.
If you look at all these factors in isolation, it would seem that Threads’ initial challenge to Twitter failed and Twitter has retained its crown. However, when you start to dig deeper, there are red flags for Twitter.
Meta has unlimited world-class resources at its disposal and a determination to make Threads successful. All the missing features will eventually be introduced once Meta has a stable version to roll out. Meta also has highly motivated and empowered employees who believe in the brand; Twitter’s employees are confused, insecure and very demotivated. Twitter’s declining user retention is a terrible indicator of user loyalty. Fewer and fewer Android users are using the Twitter app frequently and the percentage has fallen from 19% in May 2022 to 16% in May 2023. In contrast, loyalty among new Instagram users has remained constant at about 40%. This is important because Threads is tied to Instagram at the back-end so although you can only use your Instagram account to log in to Threads, you can transfer all your Instagram contacts automatically to Threads.
At the end of the day, it will be your objectives and resources, as well as your comfort level, in terms of devoting time and resources to a high-risk platform (but with great potential) that will determine whether or not you include Threads in your organic content strategy.
If as a brand or an influencer you do decide to step into the world of Threads, keep three things in mind:
1. Be quick as an innovator and early adopter: The app is brand new and gaining users, so the opportunity to establish yourself as a serious content creator is dwindling. Get in and become big before other brands jump in.
2. Take a strategic approach to risk and community management: Although Threads does not have a direct messenger inbox yet, the conversational nature of the platform is providing users with a new place to interact with brands and promote them. You will be able to communicate with your fans frequently, although for now in public.
3. Hire a social media manager with expertise in copywriting: Due to the platform’s unfiltered real-time interactions, its inability to draft posts or schedule them using third-party applications and the absence of a desktop version, organising a Threads calendar will be challenging and you will be better off hiring a social media manager who can write copy.
What the future holds for Twitter and Threads will depend on what happens in the next two quarters. If Musk stops throwing spanners into the Twitter engine, it might stabilise, but he has a lot to lose. He bought the platform for a staggering $44 billion and can’t seem to find a way to monetise it. Threads is in the more comfortable position of having taken a calculated risk that is backed by a proven and stable platform in the form of Instagram. It rushed in with a stripped-down version but is quickly working towards a stable full-featured release.
Whichever way the wind blows, one thing is for sure. Here is a legendary-level marketing case study in the making.
Agree? Disagree? Any thoughts to share? I would love to have your point of view.
Syed Amir Haleem is CEO, Skale Interactive.