Twitter Will Allow 280 Characters, Like It or Not

October 19, 2017 Marta Randall

Twitter will soon allow users to tweet up to 280 characters.

It’s easy to find a problem that needs to be solved, but it’s often much easier to create a solution for one that doesn’t exist. Evidently having bent to the power of this temptation, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (@jack) announced on September 26 that the social media behemoth had begun testing a limit of 280 characters per tweet for a select group of users. Cue the collective sigh of relief.

If this seems like a pessimistic perspective on what is admittedly a benign issue, that’s because it probably is. Twitter certainly faces other, more pressing challenges—curbing the proliferation and influence of fake accounts, for instance, or addressing marketers’ concerns about misleading metrics—but an argument that this new change exacerbates those problems would be tenuous at best. That said, it’s not entirely clear why the company has chosen to so fundamentally change their platform when the issue they sought to address has largely been solved by the Twitter community. From screenshots to threads to links, users have found plenty of ways to share long-form content in 140 characters or fewer.

Announcing Greater Equality

Dorsey’s tweet actually quoted a tweet from Twitter’s official account that linked to a post on the Twitter blog—you know, the normal and direct way to convey information. That blog post explains that the 100 percent increase in maximum tweet length mitigates Twitter’s realization that the characters of some language alphabets allow people tweeting in those alphabets to tweet more content per character. Glossing over the assumption that content follows character count, this change allows speakers of comparatively inefficient languages to tweet more but still doesn’t address the discrepancy between languages. So Twitter is rusty on the difference between equality and equity, but that doesn’t really matter to this story.

Can’t fit your Tweet into 140 characters? 🤔

We’re trying something new with a small group, and increasing the character limit to 280! Excited about the possibilities? Read our blog to find out how it all adds up. 👇

— Twitter (@Twitter) September 26, 2017

To reiterate, this is a cynical approach to something that is unlikely to cause much harm. This is not some great conspiracy by Twitter, and this change was not totally without precedent. In September of last year, Twitter implemented an update that stopped media attachments from encroaching on the character limit of tweets. Still, that seems more an effort to give you the characters you were promised than a responsibility to give you “more characters to express yourself.”

A man and woman sit side by side, tweeting on their phones

Image attribution: Raw Pixel 

Testing the Long Wind

It’s early days yet, and hard to know to what extent individuals will make use of the 280 characters, but it’s reasonable to predict that the user experience will change in some capacity. People may enjoy the freedom to say more for themselves—but it’s also possible that without the demand for brevity, everyone may find they have less patience for what other people have to say. Where the test truly lies is in the reaction of brands that have spent time and money honing their social media marketing presence. Already, brands use Twitter in different ways, and it would be naive to expect that they will or even should respond in a uniform way to double-length tweets. Some will likely find new success, some will inevitably blunder, some may not change a thing—for all, it will take time to determine the best strategy for utilizing the extended character limit. The result may be unknown, but it’s not random. Years of questions, answers, successes, and failures have provided enough information to hazard a few guesses as to what the future of brand tweets might look like.

Google returns 67.8 million results for “best brands on twitter.” Suffice it to say, there are a lot of people trying to figure out what works and how to be the best at it. Rather than get too granular, let’s look at a few broader strategies and how they could feasibly be affected.

The Unabashed Ad Man

Social media marketing can create a polarized landscape. While some companies fight to prove their humanity, others embrace the role of an entirely commercial entity. It’s not for everyone, but it’s also not necessarily a bad thing. Research has shown that consumers don’t mind big, interruptive ads on Twitter—basically, people often prefer ads that look like ads. On top of that, a collaborative study by Twitter, IPG Media Lab, and Magna found that takeover ads, or ads that are optimized to appear at the top of a user’s feed, performed better than ads that appear elsewhere within a timeline. Perhaps even more importantly, the same study found that successful takeover ads were often longer than standard content.

For brands that have chosen this strategy, it seems 140 characters has at least been sufficient. “Longer” ads are of course relative to the content that surrounds them, so a brand that decides to make use of the full 280 characters would do so with the assumption that other accounts won’t do the same. Twitter noted in their initial announcement that nine percent of English-language tweets reach 140 characters—enough that it was necessary to extend the character limit, but not enough that a full-length tweet couldn’t stand out from those around it.

Twitter Will Allow 280 Characters, Like It or Not

The Transparent Troubleshooter

Twitter is easy: easy to share a thought, easy to read a joke, easy to tell an actor you loved their movie, easy to tell an airline your flight is delayed. The first three are nice—the last one might get you somewhere. Customer support is inherently valuable, and the nature of Twitter allows an improved experience for customers and unique branding opportunity for companies. Exchanges are time-stamped, public, and have the potential to be shared indefinitely. Compared to traditional support platforms, Twitter is cheaper, more popular, and more satisfying for customers.

Customer support is genuinely well-intentioned, but that doesn’t mean there’s no brand strategy involved. There’s one obvious extrapolation once additional characters are in play: longer conversations with more detail. That may still happen, but not exclusively. Brand support accounts often ask that customers send a direct message to continue the conversation; in the instances that require an exchange of personal information, that protocol is likely to remain the same. In addition to privacy, direct messages have no character limit, making them an obvious choice for more complicated issues. With twice as many characters available, brands have to decide between the conspicuous transparency of exchanges conducted via tweet and the incidental efficiency of moving the conversation to direct message.

Your Best Friend

There’s a person managing every brand Twitter account. Maybe it’s two people, maybe it’s ten, but it’s human. Some brands distance their image from a human element by sticking to ads, some sign tweets with names or initials, and some choose to own the deliberate Internet slang that’s ubiquitous on social media. Brands that function with the latter strategy are faced with a unique challenge—they act like individuals, but the stakes are higher. People want to talk to people, and some brands have had success adopting a very friendly, personal tone. Of course, it’s not always that easy. Humor and personality are fine, as long as they’re perceived as authentic. When you start asking people what brands do wrong on Twitter, they more or less turn into school bullies: “Don’t use slang in a fake way, don’t try to be funny when you’re not, don’t self-promote, don’t be embarrassing.”

For brands that pursue personality and are fortunate enough to have emerged unscathed from the gauntlet of judgment that is Twitter dot com, additional characters should be a manageable challenge. Since success seems to hinge more on habits and tone than content length, the transition to 280-character tweets will be circumstantial rather than an entire strategic overhaul. For brands that have yet to strike the precise tone consumers demand, the new character limit could be an opportunity to start over, or it could be a green light to tweet twice as much unpopular content. To avoid the unfortunate second route, these brands will have to decide what risks they’re willing to take: blaze a new trail and risk a negative backlash, or wait to see what works and risk getting left behind.

Predictions Don’t Really Matter

There’s nothing stagnant about Twitter. Users, hashtags, moments, and trends are constantly in motion, and only so much change can be anticipated. Data is helpful to an extent, but it would still be irresponsible to say anything laid out here is much more than informed speculation. Armed only with Dorsey’s thrice-removed announcement, there’s not much else to say until the change can be observed over time. Individuals and brands alike have said their piece with 140 characters since 2006—what remains to be seen is whether they had to or whether they simply could.

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