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Twitter’s Changed Its Timeline. Now What?

Social Media Marketing, Social Media Strategy, Twitter Analytics

Twitter’s Changed Its Timeline. Now What?

Facebook is a lot bigger than Twitter, but you could argue that the two don’t really compete for the same audience.

On Facebook, a friend’s child’s birth might lead your News Feed even though it happened a day ago because Facebook’s algorithm has determined that it’s important. On Twitter though…well, who announces a birth on Twitter anyway? Twitter is where you go for breaking news and opinion, right?

Ideally, Twitter would like that to remain the case. With growth under threat, it would also like users to keep coming back though, so on Feb. 10, the company began experimenting with a non-chronological timeline.

The new timeline is a feature, not the default, though it will be in a few weeks. The idea is that “the tweets you’re most likely to care about” surface to the top so if you’re just checking in after being away for a few hours, you’ll see those instead of a reverse-chronological sorting.

“We’ve already seen that people who use this new feature tend to retweet and tweet more, creating more live commentary and conversations, which is great for everyone,” Mike Jahr, a senior engineering manager at Twitter, wrote in a blog post announcing the option.

Updating ‘While You Were Away’
Those familiar with Twitter will no doubt recall that the company has been tinkering with its timeline for a while. In January 2015, it introduced “While You Were Away” Recaps, a feature that also surfaced what the service deemed were the best tweets in a given timeline. Not everyone loved Recap. TechCrunch pointed out that users need to wade through Recapped old news to see what was new. Others, however, applauded the ability to catch up quickly if they had been away for a while.

The latest timeline tweak amplifies Recap. Instead of a few posts, you get about a dozen, including ads.

What’s Behind the Algorithm?
Facebook doesn’t reveal the secrets of its algorithm and neither does Twitter. However, when it rolled out the new timeline this month, Twitter execs offered some explanations. Michelle Haq, a Twitter product manager in charge of the timeline, told Fast Company that the algorithm will reflect your interests. If you follow the Kardashians, you’ll see a lot of tweets about them (lucky you) and if there are a lot of basketball players in your feed, then you’ll get basketball news.

The other major factor is the tweets themselves. If a tweet gets a lot of retweets and likes, then it will surface to the top you won’t miss that bon mot that your buddy or favorite celeb dropped a few hours ago.

That said, Promoted Tweets that got a big buy won’t necessarily surface to the top, even if they receive a lot of retweets. Like Facebook, Twitter is trying to ensure that the best comments surface organically.

What it Means for Brands
Ideally, this is all good news for brands. Since they tend to have large fan bases, a tweet with an average number of retweets from Nike, for instance, will likely trump most others in a given feed. The new setup would also give a boost to First View, a new ad format Twitter introduced this month that offers advertisers the top spot in the timeline when users first visit Twitter (via the app or website) on a given day.

On the other hand, brands that are in the habit of tweeting spammy content might find the new visibility works against them, which is a service to everyone on Twitter. However, savvy marketers will adjust since creating more noteworthy tweets will enhance traction organically. If you have an Oreo moment, no one will be able to miss it.

Over time, if the new algorithm takes hold, it will also put pressure on brands to be more clever and not necessarily faster, since the value of spontaneity will have fallen somewhat.

From a user’s point of view, this is likely good news since everyone will have to up their game a bit and the stress-inducing always-on nature of Twitter will be a bit relaxed.

That’s assuming that the feature is popular. Real-time and chronological has been Twitter’s main point of differentiation with Facebook. As the latter has moved more towards real-time commentary with its trending topics lists and the introduction of hashtags in recent years, Twitter’s special place in the market has been threatened. So it will be interesting to see how far Twitter takes this new timeline. It’s likely that hard core users won’t really notice since they’re on all day anyway. For the rest, Twitter will be going toe-to-toe with the meat grinder that is Facebook, which will be a tall order for the service and confusing for casual Twitter fans.

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