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Warwick Cairns, Strategist, The Effectiveness Partnership

As Zuckerberg and Musk go head-to-head, what does it take to beat a reigning champion – or to remain one?

And so to the market-share punch-up that is social media, and the battle between Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, the billionaire owners of what used to be called Facebook and the App Formerly Known As Twitter, which, as of this week, is now officially known as X (‘the everything app’)[1].

This month, Mark Zuckerberg announced the launch of Threads, Meta’s all-new challenger to Twitter. Or X, if you prefer. In doing this he joins what is becoming a long queue of ringside contenders, all of them hoping to knock out the current champ. One of them is Truth Social, founded by noted champion of truth Donald J. Trump. Another is the ‘decentralised’ Mastodon, which someone bravely named after an animal that ended up going extinct. Mastodon promises ‘a vision of social media that cannot be bought and owned by any billionaire.’ They announced that on Elon Musk’s Twitter/X app.

So, to Threads. Like many of the other Twitter/X alternatives it has a lot of similarities with the original and a few points of difference. One point of difference is that it allows videos of up to 5 minutes instead of 2 minutes 20 seconds. Another is that allows posts of up to 500 characters instead of 280. But given that the length of the average Tweet is just 28 characters,[2] and given that the optimum Twitter/X video length is generally considered to be around 44 seconds[3], those advantages are probably going to be somewhat academic to most users.

The real difference between the two networks, for many people, is that Threads isn’t run by the Tesla guy. As the Wall Street Journal put it:

If you’re wondering what it’s like to use the new Threads app, just close your eyes and picture Twitter but with a lot less Elon Musk[4]

That is also true of Truth Social, and Mastodon, and Parler, Gab, Bluesky and any number of other would-be Twitter-killers.

When it comes to the title fight with Twitter/X, it’s not really a question of which of them has the best features. Most of the features people want are already there. It’s more a matter of which of those alternatives, if any, is capable of securing a critical mass of users. If you know that your friends, your heroes and people like you are all conducting their conversations somewhere, then that’s the place where you want to be.

In 1981 a sometime Elvis impersonator by the name of Shakin’ Stevens hit the big time with his cover version of the 1956 song Green Door. It includes these lines:

Don’t know what they’re doing but they laugh a lot behind the green door
Wish they’d let me in so I could find out what’s behind the green door

Right now, the strength of Twitter/X is not its character limit. It’s not its video length or its hashtags or its Trending feature. It’s the fact that for most users, being on Twitter is like being behind the green door. It’s the place to be. On Twitter/X, you connect with superstars. You share your thoughts with the world. And Threads, and all the others, they want you to believe you can do all that at their place instead.

What will make the difference is whether you, and enough people like you, believe them when they say it.

In the 1930s there was a German-Jewish philosopher by the name of Walter Benjamin. In his treatise The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he foresaw a lot of the debates we’re having today about what makes a thing or a brand ‘the one’ even when it is surrounded by any number of identical or near-identical copies.

You might, for example, see two indistinguishable sets of marble statues side by side. One of them might have been sculpted by the Athenian master Phidias in the 4th century BC. The other might have been created last week by a machine in a factory. Yet the perceived cultural and financial value of the Phidias version would be immeasurably higher. That, Benjamin would say, is all down to its aura. Which is something you can’t see, taste or touch. It’s something which in many ways it only really exists in the mind of the observer.

But it has very real consequences, and brands need to be aware of them.

Consider two colas, side by side. They’re identical in appearance and very close in flavour. But in blind taste tests, one of those colas has a slight edge, and is preferred by 57% of those who try it.[5] Meanwhile, the other one has a slightly stronger aura of authenticity, after being promoted for generations as The Real Thing.

So which cola is worth more, as a business proposition? Is it the one that has the best product performance? Or is it the one with the strongest aura of authenticity?

You know the answer to that already. But it doesn’t hurt to put a few numbers to it. The value of Coke’s aura of authenticity is such that people feel more positive towards it. This results in measurably stronger brand preference scores: 50% say they would choose Coke, compared with 42% who say they would choose Pepsi.[6] This leads to effects in the marketplace. In 2020, Pepsi sold 310 billion litres, while Coke sold around 418.4 billion. All of that adds up to more commercial value added to the business. Today, Coke is worth $35 billion. That’s an astonishing $14 billion more than Pepsi[7].

As it happens, Coke was also one of the very first brands to sign up to Threads. Other brands signing up included international food giant Heinz and all four of the UK’s leading supermarket chains. It meant that Threads got off to a much better start than other contenders for Twitter’s title. Within days of launch, Threads had broken the 100 million user barrier. That made it the fastest-growing app of all time, beating the previous record set by ChatGPT.[8]

Despite all this, the aura of being ‘the one’ still clings to Twitter/X, and the critical mass of users still remains there. It’s telling that even as they opened Threads accounts, neither Coca Cola nor any of the other big corporates closed their Twitter/X accounts. And now Threads’ dramatic growth appears to be tailing off. According to an analysis by Similarweb, the number of daily active users has more than halved from 49 million to 23.6 million in a week. By mid-July, the number of people using Threads dipped to around 22 per cent of Twitter’s audience, down from 45 per cent the week before[9].

Here’s the thing. A brand’s aura of authenticity depends on it being something and standing for something. But rightly or wrongly, Threads currently stands for not being something, in many people’s minds. It’s the one not owned by Elon Musk. For some people, that’s a big deal right now. But the stall in the brand’s growth raises a question-mark over whether it will be enough of a big deal, for enough people, for long enough, to land the knockout blow on Twitter and then to fight off any new challengers that may come along.

At the time of writing, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk still haven’t had their much-hyped battle in the ring. But they’re already slugging it out in the marketplace, and the winner will be decided not by technicalities like character limit and video length, but by the effectiveness with which they each communicate what makes their platform, rather than their rival’s platform, the place to be.

First published by Warc.com on 25 July 2023.

[1] https://news.sky.com/story/elon-musk-reveals-rebranding-of-twitter-as-x-and-what-he-wants-us-to-now-call-a-tweet-12926425

[2] https://smk.co/the-average-tweet-length-is-28-characters-long-and-other-interesting-facts/#:~:text=The%20average%20Tweet%20length%20is%2028%20characters%20long%2C%20and%20other%20interesting%20facts,-January%2011%2C%202012&text=Earlier%20this%20week%20Twitter%20employee,one%20million%20tweets%2C%20excluding%20retweets.

[3] https://www.hyperchatsocial.com/blog/what-is-the-ideal-length-for-a-social-media-video

[4] https://www.wsj.com/articles/threads-app-twitter-features-differences-dc943cd2

[5] Malcolm Gladwell, Blink

[6] https://blog.gitnux.com/coke-vs-pepsi-statistics/#:~:text=This%20statistic%20is%20a%20testament,higher%20than%20that%20of%20PepsiCo.

[7] https://www.statista.com/statistics/603922/brand-value-non-alcoholic-beverage-brands-worldwide/#:~:text=With%20a%20brand%20value%20of,around%2021%20billion%20U.S.%20dollars.

[8] https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/online/twitter-killer-app-threads-sees-sign-ups-from-supermarkets-and-fmcg-brands/681068.article

[9] https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/why-threads-is-failing-to-win-over-twitter-users/