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Photo Tagging: Twitter's First Answer to Its Retention Problem

A smart way to keep old users, disguised as a new consumer-friendly feature.


Twitter’s problem isn’t about signing up new users — it’s about keeping the ones it has. And the company just took a small step to fight that headache.

Twitter rolled out photo tagging on Wednesday afternoon, a feature that lets you identify any people in pictures you’ve posted to the service. Previously, you’ve had to use Twitter’s @ symbol to mention other people; think of tagging as passive annotation, without the need to mention people in a tweet.

That seems minor, and it sort of is. Facebook, Flickr and other social services have allowed photo tagging for ages. In a way, this is Twitter catching up on a table stakes identification feature.

But it comes with an added bonus: Every time you tag someone in a photo, it’ll send a notification to their mobile device that they’ve been named by a friend on Twitter. (If this sounds annoying, you can turn it off.)

This makes business sense. Twitter has seen at least one billion people sign up to the service over the past eight years of its life, according to multiple sources, yet can only claim 241 million people regularly returning to tweet. That means, roughly, that for every ten people who may try out this new Twitter thing, only about 2.5 of them on average keep coming back. I’ve been told it is a rate of user churn that the company would like to fight.

So in theory, if Twitter can find a compelling reason to remind people to come back to Twitter, it’ll have a better chance of turning the casually interested into the faithfully converted.

This isn’t the first time Twitter has experimented with retention methods. There has been an uptick in emails sent to inactive users, featuring messages that require you to log back in to the service to see what has been said about you or what you’ve missed.

That has irked some of Twitter’s already regular users (namely, me). But I get why it’s happening: Twitter has felt serious heat from investors since its last earnings release, where the company disclosed just how poorly user growth is going. It needs to do something to rope in new people, yes, but to hang on tight to everyone else.

It’s smart, I’d say, to hide a retention trick inside a new photo feature. Position it as a helpful thing and people may not be annoyed by getting another push notification on their phones.

That is, if people don’t start trolling and tagging others willy nilly. Then it might start to get truly annoying.

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