Twitter Will Onboard Users With “Instant Timeline”, Inject Top Tweets From “While You Were Away”

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Twitter has 500 million logged out users it’s trying to squeeze value out of, but now it has a plan to fix its growth problem, which is really a new user retention problem. Today on its marathon 7-hour Analyst’s Day conference call it previewed sweeping product changes, new revenue streams, and a unified strategy to make Twitter for everyone, even if that means changes fundamentals that diehard users have grown accustomed to.

The most important change is called “Instant Timeline”, and it will jumpstart users with a feed full of interesting content even if they haven’t followed anyone yet. Twitter also announced it would break away from a strictly unfiltered feed with a new “While You Were Away” feature showing the best tweets since you last logged in.

Twitter will launch more messaging features, video uploading, additional standalone apps like Vine, new ad units, and ways to get logged out visitors to join or at least earn money on them.

Twitter Playbook

The Analyst’s Day call was designed to give a deep look at Twitter’s progress and strategy, and the company made good on that promise. Rather than just offer vague guidance and recount points from its earnings call, it outlined specific problems areas and plans.

CEO Dick Costolo started the call by saying product changes would accelerate to make sure everyone can get value out of Twitter immediately. That relates to the criticism that Twitter is tough for new users, and that it can take experienced ones years to really get their Timeline to be useful. The company is also focusing on serving its 500 million monthly unique logged out visitors, and improve the 185 billion impressions per quarter on syndicated tweets shown in news articles and elsewhere.

Twitter Opportunity

All-New Onboarding Flow

The centerpiece of this strategy will be “Instant Timeline”. Typically when people join Twitter, they’re pushed to follow a few accounts, but are then just dumped on a mostly empty timeline. As I’ve criticized, new users have to do a lot of work to find the right people to follow. Until they do, they’re at risk of churning out and never coming back. Costolo says Instant Timeline is designed to be immersive for new users.

Twitter’s VP of product growth Christian Oestlien outlined how Twitter has completely overhauled its onboarding process for the first time since 2011. It’s significantly shorter, adds context about why people should want to use Twitter, and quickly builds their Instant Timeline.

Twitter Instant Timeline

First, users are shown screens that explain how Twitter can help them keep up with live events and their interests, as well as friends. Next, it shows an interest selector so they can choose categories of content to be added to their Instant Timeline

Find People Twitter

Users are then prompted to upload their contacts so they can find their friends with friendly new screen that Oestlien says increased uploads by 100%. Then, Twitter analyzes what someone’s friends follow, and uses that to personalize their Instant Time. Users then have the option to follow several personally suggested accounts. Overall, the revamped onboarding flow increases the number of people new users follow by 190%, and a 10% absolute increase in sign-up completion.

While Instant Timeline is designed for new users, but it will also help pull nearly-churned users back in. Twitter said “Instant Timeline is not just something we’ll offer to new users, but to people who come back without a healthy timeline.” If someone signed up but never really followed enough of the right people to enjoy Twitter and stopped using, they could see Instant Timeline if they return voluntarily, or from re-engagement efforts like push, email, and remarketing.

Twitter Onboard

Instant Timeline could be the most important feature Twitter’s launched in years. It addresses both the onboarding and retention issue by making sure people see the best of Twitter. Investors seem to approve, as the Twitter share price is up 7% today.

Still, there’s one big problem left if Twitter is going to materially improve retention that I explore in my piece Twitter Quitters And The Unfiltered Feed Problem.

Essentially, it’s very tough for people to build a following nowadays. Back in Twitter’s early years, everyone was looking for people to follow. But with time, their unfiltered feeds filled up, and following more accounts could drown out their favorites so they became more cautious adding people to their feed. No one wants to feel like they’re yelling into a blackhole. Twitter needs to help new or reactivated users get followers, perhaps by more aggressively suggesting them to people in their address book. Otherwise, they think their tweets are pointless, and will churn out.

New Features

Long-time Twitter users will be happy to hear they’re getting some extra functionality too.

Video will be a big focus for Twitter. It plans to allow users to upload, edit, and share videos in real-time on Twitter. Previously, it only had its Vine app for 6-second videos, but the new video feature will have fewer restrictions and be available from within the main Twitter app. Oestlien imagines the feature will bring Twitter’s potential for citizen journalism and chronicling life to a new level.

DM tweets

For messaging, Twitter plans to add the ability to private share a tweet. Direct Messages are often used as a back channel to discuss public content, and soon this will be much easier thanks to a button to instantly share an existing tweet from anyone as a DM.

One feature that might rile a few feathers is called “While you were away”. It looks at the best tweets from your network since you last opened Twitter, and puts them at the top of your timeline. The company says this is so “Every time you open the Twitter app, you’ll see something great.” That’s been tough to date, with over 500 million tweets sent per day.

This marks a significant break from Twitter’s main timeline as a purely reverse chronological feed. Twitter had experimented with showing tweets favorited by people you follow, but this is a much more aggressive shift from and unfiltered feed to an algorithmically sorted one.

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 10.40.07 AM

This new Timeline Highlights feature is a smart compromise between an unfiltered classic Twitter feed and a more Facebook-style algorithmically sorted one. While You Were Away simply gets appended to the top of your feed, leaving the rest in its standard reverse chronological order. That means it can surface the best tweets drowned out by Twitter’s rapidly moving stream, but be quickly scrolled past by people who want a pure river.

New Apps

Twitter was cagey about exactly what it will launch in terms of new apps, but was extraordinarily detailed about how it assess opportunities and what it won’t do.

Twitter Apps

Twitter laid out this rubric about its objectives, scope and advantages, and how new products have to match. For example, while Vine doesn’t rep Twitter’s brand because it’s separate, it has potential to create revenue, it’s applicable to everyone everywhere, and is inherently a real-time content source. That makes the acquisition of the video app a smart move for Twitter. On the other hand, a music subscription service doesn’t leverage many of Twitter’s unique advantages, and competitors could do it just as well, so CFO Anthony Noto says the company has no plan to build or buy a music subscription service.

Logged-Out And Syndicated Users

Twitter is much bigger than its 284 million monthly actives. But 500 million people visit the site without an account or without logging in. And even more see tweets embedded in news articles, tv shows, and elsewhere, racking up 185 billion impressions per quarter. After years of focusing on what’s traditionally thought of as a “user”, Twitter is getting serious about taking advantage of its mammoth footprint across media and the web.

200 million of the logged out users come in to visit the profile of a celebrity or public figure. Twitter is now optimizing these profiles to be more sticky for those without accounts. Half of these profile visitors bounce before looking at any other Twitter content, so Twitter plans to append recommendations of what to look at next. For example, visitors to Katy Perry’s profile might check out some of her tweets and photos, but Twitter hopes suggestions to check out other pop-stars like Ariana Grande or Iggy Azalea will keep them in its garden and encourage signups.

Logged Out Profiles

Twitter’s search results account for 75 million of the logged out users’ engagement. Twitter sees web search engines like Google as a huge user acquisition tool, so this year it began letting outside search engines to index results from the top 50,000 hashtag searches. That means when people are looking for real-time news on a topic via web or mobile search, they can end up on Twitter search results page. Twitter’s also trying to do more to turn the 125 million logged out users who land on individual tweets into loyal users.

Twitter Search Results

Marketing And Courting The Media

Twitter is stepping up its own paid marketing efforts to get more people aboard. Banner ads pimping Twitter will go on news sites about big global events ripe for tweeting.

Twitter Marketing

Twitter will also buy more search engine keyword ads to bring people into the service when they search for things like “What is a hashtag?” These ads will lead to educational pages that explain how Twitter works and why people should join. You might be sick of that Ellen Oscars selfie, but it’s so iconic that Twitter will lean on it to show the value of both sharing and consuming tweets.

What Is A Tweet

Piggybacking on media coverage of Twitter content is also a core strategy for stoking growth. Twitter will double the number of countries in which it support local news and entertaiment media, handholding them to show how to vividly display tweets about them, trends, or use Twitter to add interactivity through voting and other mechanisms. The World Cup helped Twitter reactivate users at risking of churning, and increased engagement by long-time Twitter, so it’s doubling down on events. Next year it will try to enable custom experiences for up to 25 big events, from a Japanese music festival to the Cricket world cup, along with the Oscars and Super Bowl.

Twitter Media

To prove how its reach is augmented by mainstream media, Twitter says the famous Ellen Oscars selfie, the most retweeted tweet of all-time, was seen by a jaw-dropping 4.2 billion people thanks to all the media coverage.

Ellen Selfie

Twitter hopes that if it syndication efforts can get tweets on tv and the news, it will lure in even better content, which will attract more media coverage in a virtuous cycle.

Twitter's Virtuous Cycle

New Ad Cards

“The Cards platform affords us this canvas within the tweet we can use to create an infinite number of ad formats” says Twitter’s newly appointed VP of Product Kevin Weil. Since the ads are themselves tweets, any piece of content can be turned into paid marketing as soon as Twitter allows that type of tweet, like Vine videos. To date, Twitter has offered cards as ads designed to preview websites and drive traffic there, drive app installs, re-engage users with apps they’ve downloaded but stopped using, and pull in views for videos shown with tweets. Twitter has also experimented with a Buy button card for ecommerce sites to allow in-line purchases via a credit card the user has filed with Twitter.

Weil showed off some future potential uses for cards too. A car configurator card could let users customize a car and get a quote or immediately jump to the manufacturers website with those choices filled out.

Car Configurator

Click-To-Call cards let small businesses or other companies that want to initiate a sales call to get users to dial them with a single click. Tap the button, and the user’s phone immediately calls the business.

Click To Call

A polling card could let businesses ask their most loyal customers, their followers, which product they should make or which people like best. TV networks have asked Twitter to let them use polls for instant voting about what’s happening in shows like singing competitions.


Advertising can seem daunting to small businesses, so Twitter is working on a stripped-down new ad buying interface called Quick Promote, that’s quite similar to Facebook’s Boost option. Businesses can look through their tweets, find one with great engagement, click once to start an ad campaign promoting that tweet, and a second click to choose their budget and reach for the campaign and launch the ads. Twitter does the targeting and bidding automatically so businesses don’t have to worry about this nitty gritty stuff. Weil says Quick Promote is still in testing but could be released for all advertisers relatively soon.

Twitter Quick Promote

When advertisers do want to take targeting into their own hands, Weil says they have plenty of options. Ads can hit a business’ followers, people similar to those followers, broad categories of people’s interests like NFL, keywords people tweet or search, the TV shows they watch (just like how TV commercials are targeted), mobile device and connection, and Tailored Audiences that let advertisers upload their own CRM data to target existing customers and leads.

Taking a dig at Facebook’s Like-based intereste targeting, Weil says that Twitter’s ad-targetable interest graph isn’t something you just fill out the first time you sign up and never update. Many Facebook do in fact have outdated Likes such as old bands they were into, which throw off ad targeting. Weil joyfully describes how Twitter’s interest graph evolves as you follow and unfollow people, making ad targeting more accurate.

To prove it, Twitter organized a Neuroresearch division to assess how people internalize messages from its ads.

Twitter Neuroresearch

The results apparently show that Twitter has immense ability to resonate with users, and stick in their memory.

Twitter Research Results


Twitter now has finally got its revenue machine rolling thanks to its 60,000 advertisers in Q4 2014. Though Twitter now has sales teams in 60 countries, 45% of its advertisers rely on the self-serve interface. Just 1.3% of tweets shown are ads, which means Twitter could surely ramp up the presence of paid marketing in the feed without pissing off too many people. Of the $320 million in revenue it brought in during Q3 2014, an impressive $93 million came from its new ad formats like the website Card, mobile app install ads, video, and off-network ads.

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 8.09.53 PM

As for Vine, Twitter wants to scale its audience and monetize when it makes sense, but not yet.

Estimates say Twitter could grow its logged in user base as big as 560 million users. At the size and a 5% ad load, it thinks it could add $4.6 billion in incremental revenue. Twitter also thinks it could ad $1.3 billion in revenue if it can monetize logged out users at $2.50 per year. That’s a lot of hypotheticals, but if everything works and it boosts ad load to 5% Twitter believe its annual revenue could hit $11.4 billion, just shy of what Facebook is earning now.

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A Twitter For Everyone

One day Twitter thinks it could reach over 1 billion users, and today’s announcements will go a long way to making that a reality. What’s interesting, though, is that it’s the business that seems to be driving this objective much more than the mission. Tons of products that will help users were revealed today, but on an Analyst’s Day call, not at a press conference or launch event. That says a lot about who Twitter is working for right now as it tries to dig itself out of a ditch after arguably IPOing too early.

If you need evidence of this, look no further than the uggh-worthy “Strategy Statement” it released today:

Reach the largest daily audience in the world by connecting everyone to their world via our information sharing and distribution platform products and be one of the top revenue generating Internet companies in the world.

Many mistook it for Twitter’s new Mission Statement which would have been much worse, but even as a set of business objectives, it messily mixes up intentions for serving users and marketers. Twitter does have remarkable business potential, but I hope it doesn’t forget about the Twitter that starts revolutions or gives the disenfranchised a voice in favor of chatter about sitcoms.

Twitter Interest Graph

After years of slow product evolution, Twitter now seems firmly commited to change whatever necessary to boost user growth and satisfaction, and consequently revenue. The company will have to balance meddling with the app so many have grown to love and rely on with allowing it to serve a wider audience.

At its best, Twitter makes you smarter. It distills the learnings of experts into digestible insights, while also giving a sense of omnipresence by turning every user into a source of global real-time news.Done right, the changes announced today could teach more people how to join the flock and keep them flying back to Twitter day after day.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin