by Sabrina Forbes. “We’ve been trying to find out why people should use Twitter,” says Barry Collins, Twitter head of global reseller business, during his recent visit to South Africa, in partnership with Ad Dynamo. According to Collins, if you ask five different people why they use Twitter, you get five different answers. And so, for the past couple of years, the leadership team has been honing its definition of what Twitter means not only to individuals but brands and companies, too.

“What’s happening”

Barry Collins. Credit: Conor McCabe Photography.
Barry Collins. Credit: Conor McCabe Photography.

“As a company, we honed in on that Twitter is what’s happening,” he says. This definition and simplified value proposition have allowed the team to define all the product features it now builds, with the ultimate plan being to make finding relevant information easier for all users. This, according to Collins, has really galvanised the micro-messaging platform as a company and changed everything about how it thinks.

Collins believes that users are in a completely different mind-state when actively engaging on Twitter, compared to other social media platforms. He refers to it as the discovery mind-state and believes that, because of this, Twitter’s audience has become its superpower. An audience that is ‘leaned in’ and engaging is going to be more receptive to a message than those caught in a never-ending cycle of ‘sleep-scrolling’.

Reaching the right people at the right time and in the right mindset has become a marketer’s dilemma and Collins believes that Twitter offers not only an engaged audience but an increasingly influential one — an audience that can change behaviour. For brands, this offers an opportunity to speak directly to those creating communication threads themselves and to generate conversations unique to this platform. “If you can get your message in front of the Twitter audience, it’s incredibly powerful and not just cheap reach. If you’re doing your media plan, you should start with the people on Twitter first because they’re the most-receptive and -influential, and then fan out from there,” he says.

No. 1 priority

Twitter logoTwitter co-founder and CEO, Jack Dorsey, has, on many occasions, publicly stated that Twitter’s no. 1 priority is the health of the public conversation. As with all social media platforms, the management of the health and aversion of the toxicity in user’s conversations is becoming increasingly important. Twitter’s main aim is to give people a platform that they feel safe to get involved in and share their viewpoints on, but also to know that the information the platform is feeding back to them is credible and valid. With a current count of 128m daily-active-users, that’s a lot of conversation.

The brand’s global healthy conversation initiative strives to increase the collective health on the channel. For it, every user should be able to share their opinions without abuse, prejudice, or harassment. Making progress like this means having thoughtful, comprehensive metrics in place, and the brand has partnered with two teams who will each work on different aspects of creating healthy, civil conversations. The first, led by Dr Rebekah Tromble, Leiden University assistant professor of political science, will focus on political discussions and the issues that may arise as these discussions develop. The second team, led by Prof Miles Hewstone and John Gallacher at the University of Oxford in partnership with Dr Marc Heerdink at the University of Amsterdam, will be studying how people use Twitter and how prejudice and discrimination may be reduced with the right level of exposure to other perspectives and backgrounds.

Dorsey has said that determining the health of a conversation uses a four-part analysis, which involves weighing the degree to which a conversation has 1) shared attention, 2) shared reality, 3) receptivity, and 4) variety of perspective. “Where [Dorsey] is really great is that he’s really thoughtful about the product,” says Collins.

Presence indicator

Dorsey believes it’s easier to start a conversation with someone when you know they’re there to engage, and so Twitter has introduced a Facebook-esque presence indicator that shows when a user is online or offline. Twitter is also considering allowing users to add ‘ice-breakers’ at the top of their status to show a thread/theme they’re following.

Everything the team at Twitter does is about getting users to use the platform multiple times a day. It’s since moved away from the reverse-chronological timeline curated by whom the user is following, to a timeline that pushes the most-relevant, interesting topics you might be interested in to the top of your feed. Collins recalls this being a huge mover for increased activity on the platform as it gives users the opportunity to login and quickly see the most-relevant things straight away. This works best when there’s something important going on in the news, sports, or entertainment world. At other times, users have the ability to toggle back to the reverse chronological display. 

Dorsey at TED

Twitter turns 13 years old this year and, like any teenager, is understandably going through some big changes. At the beginning of April 2019, Dorsey participated in a roundtable discussion at the TED Conference in British Columbia, Canada, to discuss the deep changes happening on his platform. Gone is the emphasis on likes and number of followers, a metric Dorsey says he wouldn’t have included if he founded Twitter today. Gone, too, is the relevance of the blue tick as a measure of an account’s validity.

Twitter no longer awards these anymore. Twitter is also continuing to shift its algorithm away from people you follow to news that you would find interesting. To do this, Twitter would need to understand what your account has been up to and who you have been engaging with. When asked how Twitter targets users based on relevance and interest, Collins shares that it uses a variety of interest-based targeting methods which looks at who you’re following, who you’re engaging with and what the content you’re posting is about, without the use of any third-party data. “Twitter is very public; everything you do on Twitter is public and shared. We don’t have a bunch of data on users that we don’t share. We’ve been very open about our data policy. It’s an issue that the industry needs to solve. We need to be responsible with users’ data. At Twitter, we’re in a very good place and haven’t had to make any changes,” he says.

Collins recalls the change that caused the biggest outrage was the decision to go from 140 characters to 280. He remembers people going crazy, like the world was going to end, with #RIPTwitter trending almost immediately. This change, as with all of them, didn’t happen overnight and was a scientific approach with a lot of behind-the-scenes research. When asked what the main reason for the change was, Collins confirms it was for languages such as German, where 140 characters would never really get you very far.

Influence on Twitter


Twitter’s partnership with Ad Dynamo spans almost five years, highlighting Twitter’s ongoing commitment to South Africa and Africa as a whole (Ad Dynamo has recently opened offices in Nairobi). Twitter works with partners globally because, while it’s a massive brand, it considers itself a small company, with approximately 3 500 staff worldwide. Collins shares that it’s better for Twitter to work with local media companies who know their markets, and are incredibly close with them, than trying to deliver the same level of Twitter’s services remotely. Africa’s biggest problem, according to Collins, is data costs, with SA leading the charge when it comes to expense. Additional products, such as Twitter Lite, don’t preload images or videos, reducing unnecessary data usage. He makes mention of RAIN, stating how he loves the idea of a data-only mobile plan.

Many people might not know that two of the biggest digital-first movements of the past decade, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, were both born on Twitter, fanning into other digital and traditional platforms afterwards. For Collins, this shows the power of Twitter — that, when concepts and ideas take hold, they can spread like wildfire: “That’s just the power of Twitter: you can get huge amounts of people around an idea or concept really quickly and, in the case of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, it was phenomenal. They were life-changing, society-changing movements that happened on the platform.”

A recent viral hashtag in SA, while not as emotive or at all as culturally important as #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo, once again shows the virality of relevant content. #MensConference was created as an excuse to get out of buying Valentine’s gifts for your loved ones. A fake conference was created that every man in SA was required to attend (on 14 February 2019) and, by the end, full schedules with speaker lineups and tickets had been created and shared on Twitter.


Trend-worthy in SA now are the local and provincial elections, which spark debate from all sides. Globally, and since the alleged Russian interference in the US elections [and now SA, too — ed-at-large], Twitter has become very involved in managing the conversation around elections and focuses heavily on each country when its time comes by. “We’ve become hyper-sensitive about everything around that. We’ve got teams in place for all elections that are proactively ensuring that there’s no gamifications or things going on, like bias messages around politics, during elections,” says Collins.

While the dictionary definition of Twitter is a “short burst of inconsequential information”, anyone who’s spent time on the platform would agree that, if you’re looking for what’s happening in the world, the micro-messaging social media platform is the place to find it out. Who knows, though. what the platform might have become if it were named any of the two other names — FriendStalker and Dodgeball — that were considered before Twitter (originally twttr) was officially chosen?


Sabrina Forbes“#AgencyFocus/#BrandFocus” is an ongoing weekly series updating the market on ad agency performance and brand, including innovation, initiatives, the work, awards, people and business performance.

Sabrina Forbes (IG) is an experienced writer covering the food, health, lifestyle, beverage, marketing and media industries. She runs her own full-stack web/app development and digital-first content creation company. For more, go to She is a contributing writer to

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