What killed Turntable.fm?Nir’s Note: In this guest post, Ryan Hoover, Director of Product at PlayHaven, utilizes my thinking on the “Habit Zone” to shed light on where Turntable.fm fell short. Ryan blogs at ryanhoover.me and you can follow him on Twitter at rrhoover.

Remember Turntable? When it first launched in May of 2011, the music service seemed to own the internet, growing from zero to over 420,000 monthly active users (MAU) only two months later [1]. Unfortunately, that growth didn’t last long as many of its early adopters ditched the service. It is now estimated to have only 20 – 50,000 MAU’s, a fraction of its early peak [2].

As I described nearly two years ago, much of Turntable’s success was due to its well-executed social engagement loop; however, that wasn’t enough. So what went wrong?

Turntable failed to create long-lasting habits [3], leaving it vulnerable to competitors who more quickly became a daily part of users lives. Nir Eyal, a researcher on habit design and blogger at NirAndFar.com, posits that habits form when users have a high perceived utility and use a product frequently. The most sticky products are used multiple times a day. How often have you checked your email or Twitter feed today? In other words, users need to value the product and use it often to form lasting habits and enter the “habit zone” as represented by the graph below.

One of the most common complaints about Turntable is its demand for attention. It is both its greatest strength and weakness.

Unlike traditional music services, Turntable is designed for social interaction where users listen to music together in real-time. Everything takes place in a virtual room, filled with head-bobbing avatars and DJ’s carefully curating their playlist. Users express their love or disgust for the music by up or down voting tunes while exchanging quips, debating song selection, and conversing through a chat feed. However, this interactive experience requires additional brain cycles that users often can’t afford.

Habit Zone

Music is largely a background experience, consumed alongside other primary activities such as working, running, or driving. In comparison, services like Spotify and Pandora are easy and far less demanding. Once Turntable’s novelty faded, its users returned to less obtrusive, “lean back” experiences that didn’t interfere with their day-to-day activities.

And that was Turntable’s fatal flaw – its infrequent usage compared to other competitors [4] due to the additional effort involved in using the service. If we are to assume users value both services equally, those used more frequently become the habit and take dominant position in the user’s mind.

Turntable is not in the Habit Zone

Habit formation is becoming increasingly important as not only a competitive advantage, but a bar for entry. All products, even those creating new markets, are competing against existing habits and habits are hard to change.

Habits, or a lack thereof, killed Turntable.[5]

This guest post was written by Ryan Hoover


[1] Turntable initially required Facebook to login and use the service. According to AppData, Turntable’s usage peaked at approximately 420K monthly active users in mid-July, 2011.

[2] AppData estimates just over 50K MAU’s for the month of February. In comparison, Compete estimates 20,375 MAU in January.

[3] Nir defines a habit as “a behavior that occurs nearly or completely without cognition”.

[4] It’s no coincidence that Turntable’s gradual decline in mid-2011 was also around the same time as Spotify’s U.S. launch.

[5] I use the word “kill” superfluously. Turntable is an awesome service and I enjoy the occasional jam session but there’s no arguing its decline.

Image credit: Emogo and currybet

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  • Sankyou

    Nir – You really nailed this one on the head. I was spending hours on turntable during the day. Frequently hopping up on the tables – loved it. It was such a huge distraction and I eventually had to cut it out completely. I do miss it but they don’t pay me to DJ here (and for good reason.)

    • Glad you liked it but please note that I did not write the article. Ryan Hoover is the author.

    • Thanks! I too used to be a very active user, pulling my co-workers into a room we called “PlayHaven Doesn’t Sleep”. Morale may have gone up during that time but productivity definitely suffered. 🙂

  • justinmares

    Great post. Would be interesting to see other formerly-hot services analyzed, especially in the games arena.

    • Great idea! Do a guest post for me!

    • Yes!

      Gaming is widely different from consumer apps. Retention is incredibly difficult as the majority of users have little to no investment in the games they play. It’s not uncommon to see 70-85% of users never return after the first day of use.

      Combined with early retention challenges, games almost always have a shelf-life. Rarely do you see games capture user’s attention for more than a few months, let alone several years. This is why it’s so important to build a strong portfolio with numerous games and efficiently cross-promoting the right titles to the right players.

      I would argue that consumer apps have a much easier time at building a long-lasting relationship with their users, providing continuous utility (e.g. Evernote, Facebook, Twitter, Buffer, Instagram).

  • Great Article! One thing I think you failed to point out was the culture of the users on Turntable. In the beginning everyone was playing with the platform and it was a fun game and social experience. As time went on and “unlockable avatars” were introduced the game became much more real and the culture turned from democracy to oligarchy. I think it was a combination of the amount of “spend” from a user and the often terrible room moderators made Turntable.fm ultimately fail

  • Great insights Ryan! I too have wondered what prevented Turntable from scaling at a continual rate, especially after explosive growth. Thanks Nir for the research and context!

  • IMHO what killed Turntable was when they switched off access for anyone outside of the US, that killed 75% of their userbase right there.

    • Dwayne Cøfer

      Copyright Issues. Some bullshit.

  • [Ryan this is a duplicate of my comment on Quibb]

    There’s something curious about the fact that virtual world products often flare up massively (Second Life, Turntable, Shaker) and then flame out. I wonder if that’s fundamentally true about virtual world products or if there’s something crucial each of these products are/were missing.

    For example, if Turntable had something more habit-friendly (Spotify’s platform) behind it, would the virtual world aspect have more of a shelf life or would it still flare up and then flame out?

    • Interesting, Jonathan.

      All three of the products you mentioned received a ton of press/hype early on. Combined with the fact that virtual worlds spark people’s curiosity (at least anecdotally speaking), a large percentage of the population may have casually tried out these services even though they weren’t the target demographic/type of user.

      On the other hand, I would counter that argument by pointing to World of Warcraft and other MMORPG’s that have reached massive scale with high retention.

  • Alex B

    Completely agree with “long-lasting habits” theory but every time I read about it, I wonder how could this be applied to a one-off use services (e.g. taxes, travel planner, etc.). How do you ensure that users come back again when the times between legitimate use are so far between?

    • As Nir explains in his work, not all products need to be habit-forming to be successful.

      It’s useful to consider how these theories can be applied to non-consumer products (which is what I am doing at PlayHaven, a B2B startup) but it simply isn’t relevant to some products or services.

      • Alex B

        Good point, Ryan! Any advice on which metrics we should track instead? Everyone wants to be “social” and “engaged” these days… 🙁

        • It varies by business/product and what your goals are. Are you focusing on user acquisition? Retention? Revenue? Etc…

          Tom Tunguz wrote an excellent piece on metrics earlier today. This is a great starting point to think about what metrics you should be monitoring and optimizing: http://tomtunguz.com/your-startups-10-most-important-metrics

  • 6E0ЯG3 ˙▼˙

    I personally like to use turntable to talk and chat with the friendly peeps in a certain turntable room. In other words, I use turntable to simply chat with others instead of sharing music I like. I only see the music as a nice complement to the discussion.

  • andrew_dever

    Ryan, great post. I’d like to add some thoughts to it.

    There are a lot of reasons why a music startup fails. Probably 10x more reasons than startups in other spaces. In Turntable’s case they had to shut down in countries outside of the us, including Japan where there was a lot of activity.

    Hypothetically, if there was just enough engagement from curators – i.e. people DJing – it very likely would have been a great passive ‘set-and-forget’ experience for listeners.

    Also frequency of use is not directly correlated with forming a habit. There are plenty of Apps I am loyal to and have LTV that I only use every so often. Apps like Hipmunk and AirBnB have been able to form a simple consumer habit around a trigger (i.e. when you’re looking for flights and accomodation) that doesn’t happen every day.