How Standalone Apps Can Grow Twitter’s Stagnant User Base

Twitter has a growth problem. Well, Twitter actually has a number of problems — employee retention, profitability and lack of trust among diehard users to name a few — but user growth seems to be its most critical area.

Our own Josh Constine explained that Twitter burned bridges with prospective new users a long time ago because it was, and largely still is, difficult for them to quickly find value from the service, unlike almost every other social network on the planet — most importantly Facebook.

Now, Twitter is adopting a major feature from Facebook: the option to show some top tweets in non-chronological order when you open its mobile app. But what it should be doing is taking another leaf from Facebook’s notebook: Build more standalone apps to play to Twitter’s various strengths. 

Indeed, offering differentiated services could boost Twitter’s appeal to those who don’t use it by solving the “Why do I need Twitter?” question while also providing a differentiated experience for those who have lost faith.

Twitter’s latest quarterly report showed flat user numbers — the same 320 million active users that it had at the end of 2015. If you disregard users that accessed the service via SMS, and therefore aren’t exposed to ads, the Twitter user base actually declined from 307 million to 305 million over the last three months. Put simply, Twitter is still struggling to attract new users.

Twitter’s biggest strength is its dexterity…. Twitter’s biggest weakness is also its dexterity.

What doesn’t struggle to attract new users? Facebook, Twitter’s biggest rival. To broaden its appeal and engagement, particularly on mobile devices, Facebook uncoupled a number of its services on mobile with, in some cases, great success.

It launched Messenger as an optional standalone private and group chat app in 2011. In 2014, Facebook turned the screws by taking out Messenger functionality from its core mobile app altogether and forcing people to download a separate app if they wanted to use Messenger on mobile. Messenger now has 800 million monthly users. We’d also argue that splitting out a dedicated app has helped Facebook Groups reach 1 billion monthly users on that service. Instagram was never integrated into Facebook, and neither was WhatsApp.

Even Facebook’s less successful projects — Snapchat-like Slingshot and other now-defunct products from its Creative Labs unit — provided lessons in how users interact and what kind of services appeal and don’t appeal.

Twitter, like Facebook, has of course kept some of its key consumer app acquisitions (in Twitter’s case Vine and Periscope) as separate apps. But we think it could and should spin out even more services because it, too, is a social platform and there are many different use cases for it.

Twitter’s biggest strength is its dexterity. Different people use it in different ways. Twitter’s biggest weakness is also its dexterity. An ambiguous use case confuses prospective new users who want to know exactly why they need to download a new app. That’s exactly where standalone apps, clear in their purpose, could leverage the strengths of Twitter’s platform and widen its appeal beyond those 320 million people that get the service in its current form.

Messaging is probably the most obvious area where Twitter could spin out a standalone app, and there are some signs that point to this as a natural next step. A DM app has been rumored before, and there have been apps created by third parties that have explored the idea, too.

In the meantime, there is some momentum around DMs at Twitter. The company has grown the functionality of DMs by expanding beyond 140 characters and letting people send more than plain text. And last week, Twitter noted that DMs in Q4 are up by 61 percent over a year ago.

Even though messaging has become a saturated space where a few players dominate, a Twitter DM app could differentiate itself enough from WhatsApp by using a username-based ID system and not phone numbers, as well as from Messenger, so people could send messages without the baggage of Facebook.

A new messaging app seems like a no-brainer, as it speaks to the heart of Twitter’s DNA as a lean-forward creation tool. But what about the lurkers?

There is a completely different direction that Twitter could go with standalone apps that would help the company better hide some of the burden of tweeting, better aiming it at those who don’t want to use it that way without annoying those who love to tweet by compromising those features.

Celebrity monologues and celebrity beef, like Kanye West’s recent exchange with Wiz Khalifa; sports and news updates; and other information that doesn’t require a response from users all flow through Twitter. These can be developed into standalone Twitter apps.

Twitter could have probably have created a micro-app ecosystem years ago.

A Gossip app that is essentially nothing more fancy than a Twitter list of celebrities built out into a media news service; or a breaking news app for your favorite sports team are services that, if packaged in the right way, could appeal to a wider group of people beyond those who are Twitter’s core user base today.

Throw in the opportunity to add opinions and voice ideas — essentially tweet through a different medium — and such apps could attract new Twitter users, not to mention also offer advertisers different kinds of opportunities to market themselves.

This media play has been attempted to some degree with Twitter’s Moments feature, but it’s not a fair comparison. Moments feels half-baked and, since it exists only inside Twitter’s app — as a tab, no less — it doesn’t seem like the kind of feature that will ever be able to lure millions more users.

The question is, will Twitter ever do any of this? Does it want to? Ironically, one way to test the market could have been to encourage more third-party developers to create services like these.

Twitter could have probably created a micro-app ecosystem years ago if it had given the necessary tools to the developer community, rather than shutting developers out. These days there are few third-party Twitter apps of note, Tweetbot being the most visible example.

Regardless of how Twitter does it, one fact remains: There’s an increasingly urgent case for the company to expand its efforts as a platform if it wants to truly grow into a media company beyond its state today as a somewhat stalled social network.