7 Moves Facebook Has Made to Outflank Twitter in the Last 6 Months

Back in July, I predicted that Facebook would eventually kill Twitter. The argument I was making was that Facebook was taking steps to make itself capable of doing everything Twitter does, plus much, much more. When you add in the fact that their user base is roughly 25x 14x Twitter’s (about 250m to 1018m). (UPDATE 9/14: Emarketer reports that Twitter is up to 18m, although Facebook is projected to break 300m in November), it becomes hard to see a compelling long-term strategy for growth for Twitter.

To be clear, I’m talking about the long term. Even if Facebook is wildly successful, Twitter will likely continue to grow for the next 6-8 months at least, before leveling off or beginning to dip (like MySpace is now).

How is Facebook doing it?

Here are the moves Facebook has made in the last 6 months that leave it in excellent shape to make Twitter irrelevant:

  1. April: Makes the first of its APIs available. For you non-geeks out there, APIs let people pull Facebook data into (or receive data from) other programs, like TweetDeck. Twitter did this a long time ago and that helped it grow even during the year of the Fail Whale. For Facebook, it was the second step in opening their walled garden. This goes well beyond Facebook Connect, which was launched in July 2008.
  2. June: Facebook adjusts its privacy settings. No big deal, right? Except that now they let you broadcast to “Everyone” including non-friends–just like Twitter.
  3. June: Added Facebook usernames (a/k/a “vanity URLs”). Many people thought it was no big deal, but all of a sudden you could direct a friend or non-friend alike to your account with a simple URL–just like Twitter.
  4. August: Bought FriendFeed, part of the process of making them a “stream site” in terms of perception, rather than a slow, steady site. We haven’t seen the full benefit of this integration yet, but I’m sure it’s coming.
  5. August: Rolled out global search of wall posts. First, they had to make wall posts public by adjusting the privacy settings (see #2). Now you can search those posts, just like you can at search.twitter.com (once Twitter bought Summize in July 2008). This makes trending topics ultimately possible for Facebook, which is a favorite Twitter feature and makes them quite newsworthy.
  6. September: Announced the roll-out of @replies–just like Twitter. This allows an easy way to make it clear who you’re talking to in a message, and notify that person. Some people think that doesn’t equal Twitter’s same feature, because on Twitter you can @message anyone, not just friends, but with changes 2 and 3, we’re just inches away from a much more open Facebook.
  7. September: Launches Facebook Lite, which looks (you guessed it), an awful lot like Twitter. (See the pic to the right.)  So now the classic Facebook fan has their site, and the Twitter fan can use the simpler esthetic at lite.facebook.com.

What’s it all mean?

A lot of my geekier friends insist that Twitter and Facebook are “totally different.” But at their core, they both allow you to provide status updates on your life or things that are happening. So while the core geek communities (said with the utmost respect) may like having two channels, the average person will not want the hassle of managing both.

That leaves Facebook with the following strengths in their corner:

  • The ability to updates your status like Twitter, except you can add pictures, videos or links with summaries to those updates, and people can “like” or comment in line (none of which Twitter does);
  • The ability to send or receive updates from your third party tools, as easily as you can on Twitter;
  • A mobile platform with 65 million users. This one is shocking. It means Facebook has 6.5 times as many phone users as Twitter has total users.

I’m a Twitter fan… For now

I don’t want this analysis to make me sound like I don’t like Twitter. I do. I use it, I check it, I like it. We’ve run successful campaigns with Twitter as the centerpiece and we’re planning more. But when I look at these seven moves, and try to predict what’s going to happen next in terms of the best place to spend time on social media marketing, Facebook’s future looks brighter than Twitter’s.

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  • Dan
    Posted at 15:19h, 14 September

    One thing you failed to mention is all the “crap” on facebook. All the gifts, tags, mafia wars, games, farms, plants, trees, animals and all the other irrelevant stuff that plagues the news feed.
    To me, this makes it virtually unusable.
    I get more information out of Twitter than I do from Facebook.

    If all you want to do is give 100 people ‘flair” then facebook is for you. If you want to see whats going on right not, and find interesting links in places you never knew existed, Twitter is your answer

  • Rob Williams
    Posted at 18:28h, 14 September

    Right now I keep Twitter public and Facebook private so I like that they are different enough. But if Facebook wants to take it to the next level (like they really need to!) they could allow us to make our posts to FB selectively public or private. This way I can keep my status private by default, but if I want to make a public post I can check the box. This would render Twitter almost unneeded for me.

  • Frank Fortin
    Posted at 12:50h, 15 September

    I agree with Dan.
    Facebook can’t decide whether it wants to be serious or fun, which is why Twitter has become a professional favorite. LinkedIn could fill the professional need, because of its professional membership, but it has yet to show me how it can be useful on a day-to-day basis.
    I always keep my Facebook and Twitter tabs open. Linked In? eh.

  • Jo Porritt
    Posted at 12:49h, 16 September

    For me, both applications have their place – but I think Twitter have the edge when it comes to SMM for business. Too many irrelevant and stupid apps on Facebook mean I don’t take it seriously enough as a business platform.

  • Sheamus
    Posted at 14:32h, 16 September

    Facebook is a closed network. They’re making attempts to change this, but most people use FB for privacy – communicating and staying in contact with friends and family. The average person has 120 friends (source: Facebook). If you have a message, it’s very, very difficult to get that message beyond that limited group. And impossible for anybody else from outside to get a (status) message in to you.

    Facebook’s privacy change really changed nothing. I’m not noticing anybody who made this selection in my stream. Nobody is passing their messages on to me. I believe it’s only relevant when you do an open search.

    Hence, it’s very difficult for a new brand to establish itself on a platform like Facebook. Nobody knows who you are – how do you tell them. Advertising is one way, but that costs a fortune. Fan pages only work for people who actually have fans – to begin with.

    Twitter is an open network. It encourages meeting new people, developing new relationships and, you know, networking. Thanks to retweets and the ripple effect, the average user on Twitter has a theoretical reach of about 2 million people. That’s the average. Moderately engaged and active users can (again, theoretically) reach 15-20 million people. With my network size of about 3,400 people, I’ve had several RTs of 500 or more. God only knows how many eyeballs that reached.

    It’s very easy for a new brand to establish themselves on Twitter. It’s easy to get attention, and easy to get the word out. If you engage and are interesting, people will pay attention.

    Facebook will have a billion users in five years, I have no doubts about that. But 90% of them will be still using it to chat with their friends and family. The people on Facebook who aren’t moving to Twitter now don’t appear to be interested in the things that make Twitter attractive to professionals.

    Facebook and Twitter *are* different. It isn’t about ‘status updates’. The rich media appeal of Facebook isn’t necessary (or desirable) on Twitter. The latter predominately concerns itself with being THE place to sit right on the edge of the information flow, in a (near) real-time basis. The appeal for most people on Facebook is the apps and the quizzes (which conversely is the turn-off for many who prefer Twitter).

    While the company may change or even disappear, the *concept* of Twitter – sharing short bursts of information with and between networks – is here to stay. It’s a game-changer.

    I think the only relevant question right now is: if Facebook is so big and good, why is it doing everything it can to emulate Twitter? Because Twitter is the first proper business tool in social media. And Facebook isn’t.

  • Easton Ellsworth
    Posted at 14:35h, 16 September

    If I were Twitter, I’d be tweeting in my pants right about now.

    I’m with you on this one, Jim.

    I see a lot – maybe millions – of Twitter users having an identity crisis in the next few months and deciding to switch to “just Facebook” instead of “Facebook-and-Twitter-all-the-day-long.”

  • Jim Tobin
    Posted at 20:42h, 16 September

    I agree with what a lot of you (@sheamus, @jo, etc.) are saying about Facebook and Twitter NOW. I just see a path forming here that changes it and begins to change Facebook user behavior. And yes, Facebook is adapting because of Twitter… No doubt.

    I originally thought Facebook would “AOL it” and collapse because they kept the garden walled, so to speak. But I’ve been impressed by these moves.

    Yes, there is crap on Facebook (Mafia Wars anyone), but is anyone really saying Twitter isn’t 40-50% crap, too (affiliate spammers)? There’s gold in there, but there’s crap mixed in as well.

  • sɐıqoʇ
    Posted at 22:34h, 16 September

    I love twitter … rarely use facebook, it is too much work and not enough focused, relevant information. Are there adjusted “user numbers” for both that take into account whether you just have an account or actually use it? I also think that Twitter is much more convenient for handheld use which is becoming more and more important. I use Tweetdeck to follow the goings-on on both, but mainly use twitter for my active participation in social networking, news sourcing, etc.

  • kammyb
    Posted at 16:45h, 17 September

    Dan is so right, in addition to the *complete* instability of it. There’s not a week that goes by that lags, errors, and glitches don’t affect me on Facebook. How they are getting a “pass” on this is beyond me. How anyone trusts their security is also mind-boggling to me.

    Rob’s idea is truly the one that keeps me from full Facebook utilization. As long as Facebook TOS says I can only have ONE account, its a show-stopper. Saying globally that this group or that Can or Cannot read or comment on my wall is not enough. The notion of mixing messages from true friends, family, serious business contacts and networking sharks is just ridiculous. I wouldn’t take my grandma to happy hour with friends and sit her in the corner to listen and I wouldn’t invite someone I just met at a business mixer home for a game of Parcheezi.

  • Jason Keath
    Posted at 17:11h, 19 September

    Once Facebook allows non-reciprocal relationships (one way following) things will get very interesting. Until then, I see few gains on Twitter.

  • Jon
    Posted at 18:24h, 19 September

    My facebook friends can actually communicate with me using complete sentences. Twitter is nothing more than annoying bursts of “I am _____xyqu@littlecrapurl.com” Who cares where you’re eating/driving/sitting on the toilet? It is, quite simply, the most narcissistic platform available.

  • Real Life Sarah
    Posted at 18:25h, 19 September

    My question is: Shouldn’t Facebook be doing the “next” thing, rather than trying to copy Twitter?

  • Jim Tobin
    Posted at 14:47h, 20 September

    Good point Jason… $5 bucks that’s coming in the next 3 months.

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