Why Facebook should forget about Twitter

With the three recent big stories in Facebookland (the FriendFeed aquisition, real-time search, and now the test launch of Facebook Lite) it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Facebook is going hard after Twitter. (Update 1/16/2010: Facebook just rolled out “via” as their version of Twitter’s “retweet”. That, combined with recent changes to their privacy policy to make the platform more open, are two more clear examples of Facebook’s “Become Twitter” strategy)

What is more difficult to understand is why they are doing it.  Maybe it’s a personal vendetta because of the failed acquisition talks?  I just don’t see the business reason for this.  Here’s why I think Facebook should forget about Twitter and focus on making its own platform great:

Different target markets

It is well known that Twitter skews heavily towards younger tech-savvy users, with the rest of the population finding it hard to see the point.  Facebook, on the other hand, is increasingly being used by an older demographic.  The fastest growing demographic on Facebook is women over 55.

Why is all this important?  Because regardless of what Facebook wants to be, the demographic that is settling in on the site for the long haul is different from the Twitter user base — and they have totally different needs and behaviors. At this point, Facebook is too established as a brand to be able to force their product onto the target market they want.  And why would they even want to?  They have access to a much larger user base than Twitter.  Which brings me to my next point…

Always compete on your strengths

The mistake that Facebook is making is that it is trying to be Twitter for a user base that does not want Twitter.  Not convinced?  Go to http://www.brandtags.net and look at the brand clouds of word associations that people make with Facebook and Twitter.  For Facebook, you get words like Communication, People, Stalking.  For Twitter, you get words like Pointless, Stupid, Useless.

Now, of course Twitter is none of those things, but it shows the enormous gap in brand perceptions.  Why would you want to move a powerful people connection platform closer to something with a niche market that a majority of people find useless? There are a bunch of other Twitter statistics coming out lately that prove the Twitter niche factor: 5% of users account for 75% of the activity, 60% of US Twitter users abandon the site after a month, and 24% of all tweets are from bots (ok, that last one is irrelevant to this discussion, but still interesting).  And there’s also this interesting conversation on Mashable that clearly shows the differences between Twitter and Facebook usage.

The bottom line is that Twitter is for information sharing, Facebook is for life sharing.  That is what people are using it for — sharing photos, videos, those annoying pokes and quizzes, keeping in touch with friends all over the globe, lurking on profiles of people you used to know way back when.  That is the strength of Facebook, and that is what they should focus their platform on.

So what should Facebook do?

So here is my advice to Facebook: go where your users are.  Understand how they use the site, what their needs and behaviors are.  Go visit them, talk to them, watch them navigate around, understand why they are there in the first place.  And then enhance your platform to fulfill those needs.  Build new ways to feel closer to the people in your life.  Make it easier to share and discuss media.  Build families-only mini-communities.  Who knows what you can come up with if you just understand your users and build a web site for their needs?

Seriously — let Twitter be Twitter, forget about them and don’t force your users into that kind of experience.  Don’t try to be “status updates for everyone.”  Be a platform that lives up to the value proposition on your home page: “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.”