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Can Donald Trump save Twitter?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 5/01/2017 Olivia Solon in San Francisco
“It’s like owning your own newspaper – without the losses.” That’s how Donald Trump described the San Francisco-headquartered social media tool in November 2012.

In a little over four years, the celebrity businessman turned president-elect has grown his Twitter audience from about 2 million followers to almost 19 million, using it as his personal Pravda to post propaganda and stream-of-consciousness musings .

His prolific and opinionated 140-character outpourings (“tremendous!”, “very unfair!”, “crooked”, “nice”) are amplified by traditional media, reporting on his ad hominem attacks and diplomatic gaffes.

For Twitter, it’s been a marketer’s dream: barely a day goes by without TV channels, newspapers and websites name-checking the social media platform in stories about what @realDonaldTrump is posting.

President-elect Trump promises to Make America Great Again, but could he also Make Twitter Great Again?

US president-elect, Donald Trump, and his tweeting thumb.© AP US president-elect, Donald Trump, and his tweeting thumb.

Twitter had a troubled 2016, with a series of high-profile executives leaving the company as it struggled to attract more users (its user base has plateaued at around 300 million) and suffered from slowing revenue growth.

There were rumours the company might be sold to Salesforce or Disney, but discussions were not fruitful. Since then the company has been in cost-cutting mode, shedding staff and paring back some of its business operations, including video-sharing platform Vine.

Now the company could benefit from its most talked-about user’s ascent to the White House.

“Trump is the best thing that ever happened to Twitter,” said analyst Michael Pachter, from Wedbush Securities. “It’s like E.T. eating Reese’s Pieces!” he said, referring to one of the earliest examples of product placement.

So keen on the platform is Trump that he’s even using it to announce potential policy changes, bypassing the conventions of White House press team filters. Despite promising in November to be “very restrained, if I use it at all” in his social media use once he’s president, Trump has already hinted he’d like to change decades of policy on nuclear weapons and praised Vladimir Putin as “very smart”, even after intelligence agencies said Russia tried to influence the US election.

Trump hasn’t held a press conference since July 2016, opting instead for combining controlled settings of interviews with Twitter, which he views as a way of “fighting back” against stories he considers to be inaccurate or bad.

“This is his way of controlling the news cycle. He’s brilliant at that,” said analyst Leigh Drogen, founder and CEO of Estimize.

Trump’s use of the microblogging platform is raw and, for a person of his stature, unprecedented – or, to use the term he erroneously tweeted, ‘unpresidented’.

But it is a huge marketing asset for the tech firm, which is being portrayed by Trump and his associates as an influential tool. “You know what? The fact of the matter is that when he tweets, he gets results,” Trump’s incoming press secretary, Sean Spicer, recently remarked.

The question is, can Twitter convert such a priceless endorsement into business success?

“I’ve not yet seen Twitter do anything to market the site to non-users. They are failing to exploit an opportunity,” said Pachter. Drogen agrees, citing Mark Zuckerberg in describing the company as “a clown car that fell into a goldmine”.

“They have never actually grown out of that. They just fell into where they are. Trump will keep them relevant but it’s up to Twitter to figure out how to appeal to a larger set of people,” Droge said.

He pointed out that because of the lack of effective marketing, most non-users of Twitter joke that its purpose is to tell people what you had for breakfast. Twitter’s real value, he said, is as a breaking news source and that not all users need to post content. “99% of people should just be following news sources and celebrities, but Twitter has never really made that connection for people.”

Pachter is more hopeful, arguing that having shed most of the company’s management team CEO Jack Dorsey now has a “blank slate”.

“Every person who voted for Trump should be following him on Twitter. Why aren’t they marketing it to the RNC?”

The flipside of Trump’s presence on Twitter, however, is the swell of harassment on the platform, much of which is fuelled by the pro-Trump alt-right. This has led to a number of high-profile departures from the platform.

“I think harassment is a problem. There are no consequences for being an asshole on Twitter and there should be,” said Pachter, who suggests an Uber-style rating system for users, where people would get suspended for the site for a short period if they continually got bad scores.

Both Pachter and Drogen are intrigued to see what will happen with the @realDonaldTrump account once the president-elect is inaugurated. By that point he may be using the official White House @POTUS Twitter account.

“Normally the president takes a very nuanced view of what he wants to say and goes through several levels of filter before it gets out to people,” said Drogen.

Trump’s recent tweets do not suggest he is about to adopt a more presidential approach to his account.

Drogen believes that once in power, however, the gap between what Trump says on Twitter and what he does will become more obvious, particularly when it comes to business , where he’s been able to shift financial markets with single tweets.

“He’s going to keep saying crazy stuff because his brain is connected to fingers and fingers are connected to the phone, but I think the market is going to discount those things.” He added: “It’s not real policy, it’s literally just a dude saying things.”

Perhaps that could be Twitter’s new strapline?

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