Based on the reaction to Twitter's (NYSE:TWTR) most recent product change, you'd think it was a complete overhaul of the system, pivoting away from the real-time information network it's created over the past decade. In fact, the change has absolutely no bearing on the functionality of Twitter or Vine (which received the same change).
Twitter simply changed the "favorite" star to a "like" heart.
The move is designed to make it more intuitive for new users and increase engagement across the board. The crazy thing is that it just might work.
"You might like a lot of things, but not everything can be your favorite"
Those are the words Twitter used to introduce the new hearts instead of stars. "The heart ... is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones," it added in a blog post.
That distinction is key for making Twitter intuitive for new users. Many users are used to "liking" things on Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) or Instagram, but "favorite" carries a different context. A new user might not be sure if a tweet is worth favoriting even if he likes it. In adopting the same language as the more popular social networks, Twitter is easing the onboarding process.
In Twitter's early tests of the heart icon this summer, it found that users with hearts enabled used them more often than users who kept stars. So, as weird as it sounds, it really works.
New users are a huge focus for Twitter these days. The company added just 4 million new users last quarter, and only 8 million the quarter before that. If you don't count SMS Fast Followers, users who access Twitter only through text messages, Twitter has added just 7 million users in the past six months. Meanwhile, U.S. user growth hasn't budged over the past two months, sitting at 66 million.
Finding ways to get new users engaged is key to retaining them. More engagement provides more feedback for Twitter to continue improving its onboarding experience. It also provides more data for Twitter to use in features such as "While You Were Away," which surfaces tweets users missed while logged out of the app, or recommended accounts to follow. These are all key to increasing retention rates, which will go a long way to increasing user growth rates.
Power users don't "like" it
Much of Twitter's value comes from the set of core users who publish tons of content on Twitter. Keeping them happy is vital to the product's success. The early reaction to Twitter's changes, however, shows a very distressed user base. Mashable made a roundup of what it considers the best, but unfortunately there's no Twitter Moment.
The ❤️ as ⭐️ is a complete misunderstanding by @Twitter of how its super user group of sceptical journalists think of 'favourites'— emily bell (@emilybell) November 3, 2015
Indeed, "favorites" were used for much more than acknowledging a tweet as likeable, just as the "like" button on Facebook is used to mean much more than its literal meaning. That's why Facebook started testing additional emojis to react to posts on its network. Power users on Twitter are concerned that changing the name of "favorite" to "like" could affect how the button is used.
This is kind of ridiculous, though. The functionality of the new heart button is exactly the same as the old star. If users were using "favorite" to mean different things, why can't they adapt and use "like" instead?
I believe everyone will adapt, and within a few weeks the "like" will come to mean the same thing as "favorite." Facebook has gone through several major product changes much more significant than Twitter's most recent update, and users never fail to provide a good amount of backlash. Nonetheless, Facebook continues to grow its user base, and core users continue to use the product every day. There's little reason to believe Twitter's core users will change their behavior over semantics.
So, as long as the "like" button makes Twitter more accessible to new users, it could have a real impact on the company's ability to retain them and grow its user base. It's only a small change, however, and it can be expected to have some impact on user growth. But in combination with Twitter's other new product features designed to make the service more accessible -- particularly Moments -- and the company's new ad campaign, it could lead to a resurgence in user growth.
Adam Levy has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook and Twitter. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.