Can Twitter’s new photo features attract more users without losing its ethos?
FORTUNE — It’s no surprise that the most retweeted tweet of all time was Ellen DeGeneres’s celebrity-studded photo from this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, with 871,000 retweets in less than an hour. Before that social experiment, U.S. president Barack Obama held the record with his 2012 election victory tweet, which notched more than 780,000 retweets. The pattern, of course, is an extremely shareable image.
Which is why it makes sense for Twitter to roll out new features allowing users to post up to four photos and tag up to 10 people while still allowing a full, 140-character tweet. Twitter isn’t new to photos, but the more robust new functionality, announced Wednesday, underscores the microblogging company’s concession to move beyond its pithy, conversational structure and experiment with images, which have captivated social media companies (from Snapchat to Secret) as of late.
Recent rumors have stirred chatter of Twitter ditching its signature @ symbol and hashtags. The company’s head of news partnerships, Vivian Schiller, added to the speculation when she pointed to the antiquated tagging system and described the possibility of “moving the scaffolding of Twitter into the background.”
The new photo functionality is designed to simplify tweets by losing the “@username” tagging system and instead allowing people to tag friends directly in photos, much like Facebook. The new format not only makes the interface more graphically engaging but also may resolve the long-standing issue of user retention, luring people back into using the service if they’ve been tagged.
With heightened competition in the mobile market, making the platform more user-friendly is a key step for Twitter, according to Debra Aho Williamson, a principal analyst at research firm eMarketer.
“Some of the things like @ symbols, hashtags, and the shortened hyperlinks look like nonsense to some people,” Williamson says. “All those things work against Twitter’s efforts to get more people on the service.”
An estimated 35 million Americans used the Facebook-owned, photo-sharing service Instagram last year — 16.1% of total Internet users — compared to the 43.2 million, or 17.6% of, U.S. consumers that used Twitter, eMarketer found. Limit that figure to smartphones and Twitter hit just 30.8 million in 2013.
The eight-year-old company has struggled with growth in the U.S., adding just 9 million monthly active users, or a 4% quarterly increase, in the last quarter of 2013, according to the company’s latest earnings report. Twopcharts, a website that focuses on Twitter account activity, reportedly found that only 11% of users who joined Twitter in 2012 are still active. Following a successful IPO last year, investors remain concerned about Twitter’s ability to grow its user base.
“Twitter has always had a bit of an issue with getting their engagement up,” Ryan Holmes, CEO of social media dashboard Hootsuite, says. ”It’s well-known that photo tagging on Facebook really enabled content that was created to engage and to pull more people in real time back into usage.”
That’s a concept Facebook has embedded in its brand. After acquiring Instagram in 2012, the social media giant launched Paper, an interactive, image-focused sharing application for mobile devices. Most recently, Facebook updated its News Feed to accommodate bolder and larger images. David Serfaty, head of social advertising for Matomy Media Group, points out that even Facebook News Feed ads containing larger images are given more priority by algorithms in the redesign.
“Engagement levels are higher whether it’s with advertising or user-generated content,” Serfaty says. “Facebook figured this out pretty much when it decided to acquire Instagram, and Twitter is trying to make up some ground.”
Perhaps Twitter is playing catch-up, but the company has had to prioritize. After building an advertising model, growing the API side, and taking the company public, the timing is just right, Holmes says.
“Twitter is headlines, followed with links that often take you deeper into what the bigger story is,” he says. “Couple that with images, and I think that’s amazing not just for individuals with brands but also with advertising specs.”
Indeed, Twitter’s advertising rates on website and mobile apps decreased 18% in the last quarter of 2013, according to the company’s latest annual report. Displaying more ads to more users will be an important component in generating revenue. But the move also indicates Twitter’s increasing shift to the mobile market, which generates 75% of its advertising revenue.
“It’s really symptomatic to the move to mobile across the industry,” Serfaty says. “Where you’ve got mobile, you’ve got image-sharing.”
But can Twitter maintain the distinct conversational form and real-time news consumption that it built itself upon without drowning it in yet another feed of photos? Recounting the 2009 image of the U.S. Airways plane that successfully landed in the Hudson River, Williamson contends the new features will only bolster Twitter’s integral role in real-time sharing.
“A picture can really create an indelible image in your mind that you don’t forget as you might forget words,” she says. “Images speak 1,000 words — and that’s true in all mediums.”