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Twitter Really Wants You to Follow More Accounts

By Adam Levy - Sep 16, 2015 at 7:20AM

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Twitter unveiled a new feature to get users more engaged.

Source: Twitter.

During Twitter's (TWTR 2.68%) second-quarter earnings call, interim CEO Jack Dorsey told investors that product initiatives such as While You Were Away and Instant Timelines hadn't made an impact on engagement or user retention. The latter function is designed to give new users more accounts to follow when they sign up, so there's actually something to do on Twitter. Twitter added onto that functionality earlier this month by implementing "Who to Follow" into users' timelines on its iOS and Android apps.

The new feature will operate similarly to While You Were Away, inserting recommended accounts directly into users' timelines, disrupting the reverse chronological flow. The account recommendations will show up more often for inactive users compared with active users who are highly engaged. The logic is that highly engaged users are already following enough accounts to make Twitter interesting, and the opposite is true of less engaged users.

Twitter is desperately searching for new ways to engage users and show them new and interesting content. Who to Follow is just the start.

Whom you follow matters to Twitter
Twitter sees several benefits from users who follow a significant number of accounts. As noted, it believes a user who follows more accounts will be better engaged. Following more accounts increases the likelihood a user will find something interesting when opening the Twitter app, providing a feedback signal that will get users to open the app more often. As a result, Twitter has more opportunities to advertise to those users.

Additionally, Twitter is able to show those users more relevant ads. Whom you follow on Twitter says a lot about your interests. If you follow @TheMotleyFool, for instance, you're probably interested in investing and business. If you follow a bunch of sports news outlets and a few sports teams, you're probably interested in sports, and Twitter can also get a pretty good idea of where you live or where you're from.

Unlike Facebook (FB 1.18%), Twitter's user graph isn't a social graph, but an interest graph, it says more about what you like  than who you know. However, Twitter has done a poor job of filling out its interest graph for users. Facebook's ubiquity and follow mechanism has made it easy for it to build out a graph, but theoretically it's not as powerful as an interest indicator as Twitter's potential graph.

Facebook's Instagram operates on the same principle as Twitter in that users follow their interests rather than their friends. Instagram has done a much better job building out a graph, relying on its existing social graph on Facebook. That's why Twitter asks to access your email or phone contacts when you sign up to create an Instant Timeline, but that apparently hasn't worked well.

Finding new content
Who to Follow is all about helping users find new content, but it's not the company's only initiative to get users to view more content on Twitter. Most notably, Twitter plans to release Project Lightning this fall, which will curate content around big events. The new feature will be available to anyone, even logged-out visitors. Twitter is hoping the new format -- which collects photos, videos, and commentary -- will provide users a reason to continue checking Twitter day after day.

Dorsey didn't give very many details about Project Lightning on the company's most recent earnings call, but he noted that he's very excited about its release. He said Project Lightning will show off content that "truly shows the power of Twitter." That power being its ability to collect exclusive and interesting content from all over the world.

Engaging user growth
One of the biggest gripes about Twitter on Wall Street is that its main product's user growth has slowed significantly since it came public. A big reason for the slow growth is Twitter's struggle to retain its users. Twitter is well known enough to get people to try it, but many new users struggle to find any value from Twitter. Things like Who to Follow and Project Lightning are designed to make it easier to find valuable content on the network, but only time will tell if they effectively keep users from abandoning the platform.

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