LAS VEGAS — Twitter has used dozens of words, clichés and redundant phrases to describe itself during the past decade. The company's CMO, Leslie Berland, owned up to that fact in a speech at CES 2017 that aimed to redefine Twitter and explain why 317 million people use it every month.
Instead of abandoning the myriad ways Twitter executives have described the company during the years, Berland embraced it. "So, we were a platform, a product, a service, a water cooler, a time square, a microphone, and we are every single one of those things," she said.
When Berland joined the company in early 2016, after more than 10 years with American Express, she set out to revamp Twitter's marketing message and understand why some people remain confused about its purpose. "Twitter shows me what's happening in the world," she said. "Twitter shows me what's up. Twitter keeps me on the pulse. Twitter keeps me informed. This is why people love Twitter."
Twitter overcomes barriers and embraces news
Berland said Twitter discovered three key barriers to its adoption — all rooted in a lack of consumer awareness.
Many people simple didn't, or don't, understand what Twitter is, Berland said. "People thought Twitter was a social network," or a place to "connect with friends and family members, look for ex-boyfriends from kindergarten and share baby photos ... That was the perception that people who don't use Twitter had about what we were."
The "pressure to tweet," or a perception that Twitter requires an abundance of thought and the willingness to constantly share, also remains, according to Berland. "People believe that to use Twitter they must tweet."
As Berland and her colleagues set out to clarify just what Twitter is and why it exists, they landed on the most obvious definition of all. "Twitter is the place to see what's happening," she said. "We've been asking the same question from you for years and years. We've been searching and searching, and the answer was staring in front of us all along." That central question — "what's happening?" — appears right in Twitter's main compose field.
"The first thing we did is we actually took ourselves out of the social networking category in the app stores and we put ourselves where we belong, which is news," Berland said. "As we were telling the story about us being in the center of what's happening in the world, reflecting on what's happening in the world, there was in fact a lot happening in the world right here on Twitter," she said.
The company created a new marketing campaign and brought more color to its logos to represent the vibrancy of what Twitter really stands for, according to Berland. "It was this moment where we had anchored into our identity what it meant to be a part of something so very important," she said. "For us, Twitter's very much about questions and answers, and conversations, and what's happening and what people are talking about."
Twitter is now the No. 1 news app in the world, she said.
Twitter's neutrality creates challenges
Twitter's open-ended mission has also put it in the crosshairs of endless hot-button issues. Constant cyberbullying continues to drag the company down, and Twitter at times has seemed unable, or unwilling, to take a strong stand against even the most heinous offenders. The company's outsized role in the 2016 presidential election also meant a single tweet could shape political conversation and media coverage more effectively than nearly any other medium.
Berland mostly avoided these issues at CES 2017 and chose instead to repeat the company's insistence on neutrality. "We never take sides," she said. "The beauty of Twitter is that you can see all sides of any conversation that is happening at any moment in time."
Unfortunately, the "town square" of meaningful conversation that unfolds on Twitter often devolves into a cesspool of hate, and the company seems content to stand back and watch from a neutral distance. "I think what we can all be sure of is that it's going to be an eventful year," Berland said. "There will be moments of inspiration, there will be moments that are terrifying, there will be moments of love, there will be moments of hate, there will be moments that are life-changing, there will be moments that are game changing."
For better or worse, Twitter will play a key role in many of those moments.