Disclaimer: I refuse to refer to Twitter as “X” or tweets as “Xs” under protest that we are better as a species.
Before I get into the meat and potatoes of Twitter’s recent change in direction, this isn’t just about Elon Musk’s acquisition of the bird app everyone loves to hate. As far back as 2020 for the purposes of smaller businesses and local organizations Twitter increasingly felt like marketing channel with diminishing returns. I’ve largely phased out client Twitter accounts because the time just seems better spent elsewhere.
The big problem from a data standpoint is that Twitter just doesn’t drive enough clicks for small businesses to justify the cost. Musk himself was widely mocked and derided for claiming that Twitter was the biggest driver of clicks to other websites on the entire Internet.
On its own this was an outlandish claim but replies linked to an analysis from DataReportal showing that among social platforms, Twitter generated 7.7% of referral traffic. Not insubstantial, but dwarfed by the 74.1% of clicks from Facebook. I also suspect that the vast majority of these clicks are sent to large brands with large, built-in audiences and that most casual users of Twitter aren’t regularly clicking through to their local burger place or rescue shelter. This is because larger brands tend to be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and there’s very little to incentivize to encourage small businesses to tweet more.
I suspect this lack of click-through is also because on a one-to-one organization like Twitter, networking and relationship building is generally done by tweeting back and forth. Most small businesses obviously don’t have time for this, and even if they did the benefits of it would be dubious. Yes, if you start random conversations and randomly reply to people in your general area, you’re “raising brand awareness” – but to what endgoal?
It’s not 2010 anymore and the average Twitter user (let alone the average customer) couldn’t care less about you “sharing your digital story.” They want to buy stuff from you, donate to you, book an appointment, or whatever the case may be. Twitter’s uniqueness as a platform is how ephemeral it tends to be – the problem for small businesses is often that your tweets to people are often going to get lost in a sea of white noise, ads, and weird crypto bots selling you scams.
On an anecdotal level Twitter for business purposes had already increasingly felt like shouting into a void. Small business tweets directed at a few thousand followers will generally amount to one or two likes with a few very clearly automated upvotes. I suspect a lot of this has to do with the fact that aside from people with large followings questioning their audiences, people generally don’t use Twitter to “connect” with small businesses. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but Twitter is for conversation, back and forth, and celebrity drama. In short, the sheen has worn off.
In my own personal experience, small businesses and nonprofits often benefit from social networks that efficiently connect built-in subcommunities relatively easy, such as businesses in the same town with people who are also on the network. For its many other faults, Facebook does still excel at this. Other than maybe lists, there’s almost no way for Twitter to organize small businesses in their local communities as effectively. Tweets just exist in a nebulous ocean where you’re always competing for the attention span of casual Twitter users, many of whom are likely not even on the platform to interact with you in the first place.
I’d be remiss if I also didn’t point out that small businesses generally benefit more from enclosed environments that they have control over. Harassment has been a problem on Twitter for years, and their chief executives have said so plenty of times. At the very least, on Facebook you can stamp out troublemakers and bad actors with a simple page ban. Not so on Twitter; you can block them, but that doesn’t stop them from hounding anyone else trying to reply to you. What small business owner wants the stress and hassle of that, especially with the problems on social media generally?
This all contributed to an environment, in my view, where the cost-benefit analysis of Twitter for small businesses just hasn’t been there. I generally see local institutions using Facebook and Instagram, and if there is a Twitter, it’s usually gathering dust or linking to a long-since deactivated account.
The best part is that this is before we arrive at Elon Musk’s $44 billion acquisition of the company.
Elon Musk has screwed Twitter up. This is a fact; it’s not even just me saying it as an opinion. He could have done nothing and let Twitter continue to run as is and it would be in much better shape than it is now.
Just recently Elon Musk renamed Twitter to X, in a move that raised eyebrows and has been widely mocked. According to analysts this move wiped out billions of dollars in brand value. Even if you want to play devil’s advocate and argue brand value isn’t relevant to a small business…how does this work from a branding perspective? Who is going to say “Hey, I just went on X and Xed about the burger place I stopped by today!” with a straight face? A supposed super-app called “X” is how the movie Demolition Man saw the future alongside the swear machines, not what I’d expect from a rebrand of an established, decade-old company.
I suspect that Musk himself was an architect of this decision and that no actual brief was written, because he seems to have a strange fondness for the idea of having his very own X company. Don’t take my word for it; the Washington Post retreaded the tale of how he tried to rename PayPal as X.com. The attempt caused him to be ousted by the board and replaced as CEO. Except now as a private company owner there’s nobody to tell him no.
That’s just recently. It hasn’t even been a year and advertiser revenue is down by half on Twitter. The much vaulted Twitter Blue subscription, a weird faux-populist attempt to bring blue checkmarks “to the people” has fallen flat. Musk himself has admitted that despite the applause of his defenders, which was only missing a “Mission Accomplished” style photo-op, the cash flow of the site is still negative.
Musk rationalizes this by saying Twitter needs to get cash flow positive and out from a heavy debt load before addressing anything else, namely the many promises that he’s failed to deliver on such as encrypted calls, a content moderation council or a Twitter video app for Smart TVs. Even if that were true it’s immaterial to the point of this article: What on Earth is the benefit to any small business for using Twitter now when the owner is more interested in boxing Mark Zuckerberg than making the platform actually work?
Twitter was already stressed under a litany of problems even before the acquisition: Ineffectiveness as a marketing channel for smaller companies, its ongoing problem with harassment and toxicity, and the overall general sense that people may not be as eager to “communicate” with brands on Twitter as they used to back in the heady yesteryear of the early 2010s. These have all contributed to, at least for me, a sense that Twitter just isn’t worth it.
That was before the company was purchased by a man who, as Ed Zitron blisteringly put it, seems to have no strategy, organization, product roadmap or “goals” for Twitter beyond living out a fantasy X.com company. If the owner of Twitter itself isn’t prioritizing reasons to keep your business active and invested, you don’t owe that company the benefit of the doubt either. You have a limited amount of time to do marketing; use it for platforms that work and deliver results rather than just presenting the appearance of that.
Twitter for small businesses had a decent run. In the early 2010s it was a relatively new, exciting phenomenon with one-to-one communication with customers. The possibilities seemed endless. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of those small business Twitter accounts abandoned or just quietly wound down. I’m sure people can still make Twitter work for their business needs but I just find it a complete dead end for most small businesses, and that attention is better spent elsewhere.