Twitter sunsets Fleets: Why it could not keep up with the ephemeral content space

Twitter recently announced the demise of its Fleets feature less than a year after it was first introduced last November. The feature will be phased out on 3 August. Nonetheless, Twitter will still make full use of the space at the top of its timeline, given it is "a good spot to highlight what is happening now", Ilya Brown, head of product, brand and video ads said. The space will be replaced with its live audio chat rooms Spaces.

Fleets was launched with the aim of sharing momentary thoughts and help start conversations, sticking around only for 24 hours. The company had initially received positive engagements through its tests in Brazil, Italy, India and South Korea and brands such as Shopee Malaysia have used it. It was created as a rival of Instagram Stories and Facebook Stories, which were both launched in 2016 and 2017 respectively to compete with Snapchat's Stories feature.

While Fleets was temporary, its rivals are still going strong. Snapchat, for example, reported an increase in daily active users to 280 million during the first quarter of this year, compared to 229 million in the same period last year. Its average revenue per user increased to US$2.74 in Q1 2021 compared to US$2.02 in Q1 2020. Meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during the Q1 2021 earnings call that increasingly, Stories is "a big deal" in Instagram. In 2018, Instagram Stories surpassed 500 million daily active users, Zuckerberg said in a Q4 2018 earnings call. According to industry playersTwitter lost out because it is generally text-driven and it entered the ephemeral content scene four years too late.

Ken Ip, assistant general manager, group head of marketing at Hong Kong-based B.S.C. Group told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that while almost all of the major social media sites have attempted to replicate Snapchat's Stories, Twitter was the first to admit that its experiment with ephemeral content has reached the end of the road. Unlike the other platforms where users are generally posting pictures or videos, tweets on the other hand, are typically text-driven. Consumers also use Twitter differently than Facebook and Instagram, hence Fleets did not really make sense, Ip added.

"To make matters worse, the name is also shared by a company that sells a very popular line of laxative enemas. Talk about branding 101," he explained. That said, Twitter has always been all about speed. According to him, many of Twitter's earlier developments were designed to make the service even faster - faster to present users with interesting content via algorithms, faster to publish with Fleets, faster to spread information with RTs and quote tweets. While Fleets might not have taken off for Twitter, the company is showing an interest in expanding beyond tweets, such as Spaces. 

In January this year, Twitter also acquired newsletter company Revue that allows users to publish and monetise email newsletters. Twitter explained previously that this is a new way for the company to serve writers and publishers who have built a following with their tweets.

Meanwhile, AdColony's SVP APAC, Tom Simpson, said TikTok, Facebook and Instagram already occupied the space for ephemeral, visual social media with consumers, and Twitter being four years later to the game was just too late. To stay ahead of the curve, Twitter needs to double down on its strengths as a more serious, business content-led social media platform, he said.

"In this light, Spaces looks primed for success. Think of it as an always-on Ted Talks - for Twitter, that’s 100% on brand. Spaces also comes at a time when audio content is starting to take off. It’s the perfect platform to keep Twitter ahead of the game," Simpson explained.

In addition to entering an already cluttered space, Twitter also lost out because its growth has always been through democratising information, Sonya David, strategy lead at iProspect, Media Group, dentsu Singapore said, unlike Instagram and Facebook, which operated on people-led exclusivity. This means that if users are not part of one another's group or connected as friends, they cannot see the other party's content. David added:

Right from the adoption of Snaps on Snapchat and later Stories on Instagram and Facebook, ephemeral content has always skewed towards personal events and updates. In contrast, the noteworthy moments of Twitter content, is arguably news-making opinions and movements, and less of transient conversations.

Nonetheless, David said Twitter is definitely ahead of the competition in helping people discover opinions join in conversations that matter to them. Marketers are currently turning their focus to Gen Z, who value plain-speaking, on-demand support and opportunities to speak their minds. According to her, this is a clear fit with Twitter's values and platform behaviours. 

"It should leverage this existing advantage to strengthen its appeal to Gen Z. A study by WordPress found that 56% of Gen Z were friends with people they have never met in real life. Twitter as the online village square has the opportunity to be their future hangout space to start connections that are important to them," she said. Dentsu works with Twitter in Asia Pacific. 

Twitter is already an ephemeral platform

Twitter's spokesperson told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE previously that it understands tweeting can be intimidating since tweets are forever. However, everyone has fleeting thoughts throughout the day and those "felt cute, might delete later" moments that they might want to share without putting in too much effort. Hence, the team decided to refer to them as Fleets. Even so, Julian Chow, head of digital at Archetype in Singapore, is of the view that posting ephemeral content features such as Stories is not about avoiding making a permanent public post, but to provide real-time updates to a user’s connections, and Twitter’s main product was already able to achieve this.

He explained that the content format worked for Instagram and Facebook because it was sufficiently differentiated as a product feature, adding:

Twitter was, in essence, already an ephemeral content platform where content came and went very quickly.

"Releasing a feature that was similar to its main product (tweets) in terms of content longevity and velocity didn’t provide enough product differentiation for the platform, unlike for Facebook and Instagram whose algorithms ensured content didn’t move on as quickly as Twitter’s," Chow explained.

Moving forward, Twitter can continue to embrace its position as a platform for breaking news. In times of crisis when information needs to move fast, Chow said Twitter still pretty much owns that space. "Specialise in this area, have partnerships with news organisations to roll out product features that are news-centric, and aim to own the breaking news space," he added.

Nonetheless, should still intend to compete with the "entertainment-like" platforms, it can consider reshaping its features to enable content to become richer and more entertaining via video filters and music tracks, for example. According to him, this is a main trend that continues to drive traction for platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. "If Twitter can somehow reshape its platform and features to be closer to that, it might stand a chance, although I feel the first option is the more likely, and safer, bet for Twitter," he added.

How can brands engage consumers with ephemeral content?

Despite the demise of Fleets, ephemeral content is still going strong as users are now living in an age where attention span is short and constantly hunt for new content. According to Chow, ephemeral content ensures audiences will continue coming back for more because there is a time sensitivity to consuming the content. This means people will naturally spend more time consuming ephemeral content versus the permanent content that’s in the feed.

At the same time, such formats allow audiences to consume content in a chronological storytelling manner. In contrast, content in the feed may not be displayed chronologically. He explained that users may see more engaging posts first, even if they were posted a while ago.

"An idea that’s been on my mind recently is whether brand storytelling using ephemeral content can mimic the episodic storytelling patterns we typically find on TV series which usually have multiple dramatic turns. Such a tried-and-tested storytelling approach has kept audiences coming back for more, and I’ve love to see brands try that!" he added.

At the same time, ephemeral content also plays to the consumers' "fear of missing out" mentality. B.S.C Group's Ip said designing marketing strategies around such content is no longer a "nice to have" as brands that stay passive will fall behind. Agreeing with him was Krew Digital's digital director Ken Cheung, who said as ephemeral content has a short life span, efforts are required on ramping up the frequency of posting for the pursuit of constant engagement. Brands can leverage random polls and gifs to arouse netizens’ interest and drive engagement. Holding live sessions have also proven to be an effective tactic to drive exposure as interaction is allowed in real-time to encourage participation, Cheung said. 

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