Last week, Meta launched Threads, its social platform and direct rival of Twitter. Threads is a text-based conversation app that is, according to Meta, a space ‘where communities come together to discuss everything from the topics you care about today to what’ll be trending tomorrow’. Users can follow and connect directly with creators and others with similar interests, and build followings with whom to share ideas, opinions and creativity. The launch was perfectly timed to coincide with Twitter’s ongoing struggles under new-ish owner Elon Musk – struggles which have driven many of its largest advertisers to jump ship and its value to plummet. Threads hit 100 million subscribers in just five days, making it the fastest-growing app in history. So does it have the potential to kill off Twitter completely? And what are the opportunities – and risks – for advertisers?
Twitter has long been on unsteady ground financially. When Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, acquired the social media platform in late 2022, there were hopes that its fortunes might change. Those hopes were disabused within a few short weeks as Musk unleashed his reign of chaos. Within weeks he had laid off half of Twitter’s workforce, scrapped, reinstated and re-scrapped the ‘blue check’ verification feature, and given advertisers plenty of food for thought about the future of their investments with the platform.
There has been little improvement in the months since. The stripping down of content moderation rules, recalibrating content algorithms and rolling out paid verification – which has made it more difficult to authenticate news sources – have only stoked brand safety fears. But it was perhaps changes introduced in the last couple of weeks that told Zuckerberg that the time to launch Threads was now. Musk managed to upset both users and advertisers when he limited the number of tweets that users could see and allowed only logged-in users to see posts, meaning that organizations couldn’t rely on lots of people seeing their posts.
The bewildering changes that Musk has implemented are showing in Twitter’s results. Its monthly active users dropped by 15% on iOS and 14% on Android between March 2022 and March 2023, and the company’s value has plummeted to an estimated $15 billion, compared to the $44 billion that Musk paid for it less than a year ago. Advertisers have been fleeing amid significant brand safety concerns as far-right, hate-fuelled content becomes worryingly common in users’ ‘For You’ feeds. As one industry insider told The Drum, ‘Musk’s lunacy and the cauldron of hate that Twitter has become continue to confound users and advertisers alike’.
With Twitter in disarray, the door was wide open for a competitor to create a viable alternative to Twitter. Cue one Mr Mark Zuckerberg, who launched Meta’s Threads app against the backdrop of user despair at Twitter’s rate limits last week. The platform’s uptake has been record-breakingly rapid, with subscriber numbers in nine digits less than a week after its launch. Industry experts credit the eyewatering growth to a couple of key factors. Firstly, Threads is a response to consumer demand (and not just an attempt to catch up with the competition, like previous Meta launches) – Twitter users are dismayed at the state of Twitter and were actively seeking alternatives, but smaller platforms such as Bluesky and Mastodon simply didn’t have the scale. Secondly, Threads is integrated with Instagram (all users must have an Instagram account), with auto-follow options for Instagram users signing up to Threads. This smooth sign-up experience has been key to the rapid growth of the platform.
So far, Threads seems to have gone down well with users. The general sentiment is that it’s very similar to Twitter, but with less hate. It combines Twitter’s user experience with Instagram’s social graph and a sophisticated algorithm. There has been frustration that content is delivered in a way that is akin to Twitter’s ‘For You’ feed, with posts chosen by an algorithm rather than users seeing posts from people they follow in a chronological fashion. However, Instagram boss Adam Mosseri has said that a Threads feed showing posts from people you follow in chronological order is currently in the works. A key issue that Mosseri and Zuckerberg will need to address is that Threads is currently not available in the European Union, as it doesn’t comply with rulings in the EU Digital Markets Act of 2022. This will presumably be rectified in the near future in order to drive continued growth.
Is Threads a good option for advertisers?
Since Twitter became such a brand safety concern for advertisers they have, much like their customers, been looking for a safer, kinder alternative. Many, including General Motors, VW, Pfizer and Mondelez have abandoned Twitter altogether. Can Threads fill the gap?
Threads doesn’t currently support advertising, but it’s surely only a matter of time. Meta will undoubtedly be focused initially on building up a large user base; a spokesperson confirmed that ‘Our priority is to build consumer value first and foremost, which allows us to explore how to build business value in a way that doesn’t compromise the consumer experience’. Advertising on the platform will likely appear in the next four to six months, in the form of in-feed ads, and will leverage the experience and ad operations of the other Meta platforms. Indeed, there will be the potential for connected strategies within the Meta suite of platforms that operate across the sales funnel. The current lack of ads will be a draw for subscribers at the moment and a competitive differentiator from Twitter, and Meta will need to find a way to balance not scaring them away whilst also monetizing their eyeballs.
Meta has long been concerned about brand risk. It has stringent content moderation policies in place which will appeal to brands who want to avoid the Twitter Wild West. One senior Meta figure emphasized that Meta platforms are ‘sanely run’ – no doubt a balm to worried marketers. However, the privacy and data collection issues that beset other Meta platforms will apply to Threads. They will need to remain top of mind for advertisers as they plan their Threads strategies.
In the meantime, while Threads remains ad-free, it’s a good time for brands to build organic reach and experiment with the tone of voice they want to use on the platform; there seems to be a feeling that it is more informal than Twitter. First-mover advantage will come into play, so now is the time to build a following and leverage the integration with Instagram followings, before the platform becomes crowded and that advantage is lost.
What’s next for Twitter vs Threads?
Elon Musk is reported to be, unsurprisingly, furious with Mark Zuckerberg. He is threatening to sue on the basis that Meta has hired ex-Twitter employees who have access to Twitter’s trade secrets and other confidential information. However, most would agree that he has only himself to blame for Twitter’s undoing. His approach has been chaotic and destructive, and he has allowed hateful content to proliferate. It is possible that Twitter simply hasn’t been his primary focus; he is, after all, also the owner and CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX. Perhaps salvation will therefore come in the form of new CEO Linda Yaccarino, who took up her post in early June. Many will be hoping that she can turn Twitter around and set it on a new course towards a more stable future – who knows, perhaps even by the time Threads is ready to launch its advertising product.
Threads’ success will lie in Meta’s ability to create a more positive social platform which combines the immediacy of Twitter with a kinder and therefore more brand-safe environment. There are of course challenges ahead, not least the 2024 US presidential election; how Threads handles news will be important. Adam Mosseri has reportedly said he doesn’t want to encourage news and political content on Threads. However, it is this kind of content that made Twitter so popular, so Mosseri will need to bear that in mind.
For now, the industry will be watching to see if Twitter will continue to self-destruct and whether Threads can effectively fill the vacuum it leaves. Elon Musk believes that it is ‘infinitely preferable to be attacked by strangers on Twitter than indulge in the false happiness of hide-the-pain Instagram’ – but will users and advertisers agree?