Why is Twitter changing its character limit?

Twitter announced on Tuesday that they are testing an extended character limit of 280 characters per tweet, as opposed to the current 140. Why? And is it a bad thing?

Firstly, this isn’t a feature that is available to everyone yet. It is being tested with a small set of users. So if you’re one of them, consider yourself lucky. Based on previous roll-outs of new features, the rest of us will have to wait a few months before we can get our hands (thumbs?) on those extra characters.

Nonetheless within minutes of the announcement Twitter users were up in arms. #Outraged. WTF. Angry emoji.

This is nothing new. Social media users are outraged whenever their favourite platform introduces a change. Facebook News Feed. The Instagram algorithm. Pretty much anything Twitter does. It’s funny how us techies can be so resistant to change, isn’t it?

A few calmer voices wondered aloud – or, at least, wrote in 140 or fewer characters – why Twitter is prioritising a feature that hardly anyone has asked for over finding a better way to deal with trolls and hate speech. Or the universally desired ‘edit tweet’ function.

Here’s why.

It’s not about users, it’s about advertisers

Yes, the 140-character limit is Twitter’s defining feature and people have an emotional attachment to it. But opinion is divided. Many users see the brevity this enforces as a strength. It keeps timelines free-flowing and conversations snappy. Others – in particular business users – are frustrated by the constraints imposed by the limit, as it can make it nearly impossible to convey complex messages in a single tweet.

Guess who pays the bills?

Let’s take a step back for a minute. Twitter has lost its lustre in recent years. There is no clear strategy, other than to reinforce its niche as a key source of real-time news and conversation. Growth has plateaued – currently 328 million active users and going nowhere fast – while its rivals continue to grow. Facebook passed two billion users recently, Instagram has just topped 800 million. Twitter is no longer the popular new kid, as investors fawn over Snapchat and others.

Without user growth, without a clear strategy, question marks hang over Twitter’s future profitability, which is reliant on advertising revenue streams that are dwarfed by Facebook and outpaced by Instagram. Without confidence in Twitter’s business model, investment dries up. Without financial backing, well, you get the idea.

So priority number one is to make Twitter attractive to business advertisers again. Yes, Twitter is saying it’s about improving user experience – but I rather suspect that is only a secondary motivation. 

The storm of social media outrage will pass soon enough. It always does. Will users abandon Twitter in droves? Unlikely. Life will go on.

Why do businesses need longer tweets?

So, back to business (literally). What does Twitter have to do to make itself more attractive to businesses?

Companies use Twitter for a variety of reasons. It is a global communications channel. It is an advertising platform. It is increasingly a customer service channel.

In each of these cases, only having 140 characters to play with is a problem.

For instance, from a comms and advertising standpoint, the character limit restricts how much copy you can include in a tweet. Include a URL link and a hashtag and your 140 characters is reduced to about 100 for your ad text. It’s not much.

There are 47 characters in this sentence alone.

What’s happening is a natural extension to the changes we have seen over the past year. Replying to someone using their @handle or including an image used to eat into the 140-character limit. They don’t any more. These changes alone freed up valuable real estate for actual words.

Now imagine how liberating an additional 140 characters will be for advertisers. Give marketers more space and they will be able to communicate more sophisticated messages and achieve better results, which means they will spend more on Twitter ads. More revenue, better growth prospects, more investment. Bingo!

It’s also great for languages that tend to have longer words. A 140-character limit can be problematic at times in English in a way it simply isn’t in a ‘compact’ language such as Japanese. But a 140-character message in English may be well above the limit in Spanish or, worse still, German, a language known for its long words. There is a reason why Twitter isn’t particularly widely used in German-speaking countries.

What does this mean for bloggers?

So what implications can we expect from a blogger’s perspective? I think we will see two key changes.

The first of these is a renaissance of the hashtag, particularly for sponsored activity. When brands ask to include their campaign hashtags it restricts what we can put into tweets, especially if they ask for more than one hashtag or to mention their company’s @handle. With 280 characters, there will be plenty of space for extra hashtags and for bloggers to compose compelling tweets.

The second thing we will see is a shift towards longer tweets – obviously – but then, I suspect, the pendulum will swing back towards shorter ones. Maybe not as short as we have now, but certainly less than 280 characters.

Smart advertisers and bloggers will already know that with any form of social media, there is a noticeable drop-off in engagement as posts get longer. Recent research suggests that tweets under 100 characters in length drive on average 17% more engagement.

It makes sense if you think about it. If you can convey in 150 characters what takes someone else 280, readers are more likely to absorb and respond to the one that takes less time to read. So while it will unquestionably be beneficial to have an extra 140 characters available, just because you can use them all doesn’t mean you should do.

And here’s the rub. Even when the new character limit is introduced, brevity will still be king on Twitter.

I don’t think this change will be as earth-shatteringly horrible as many seem to think. In fact, I think that within a few weeks we will barely notice the difference. As the saying goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same.


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