Twitter’s success, and how to make money off it without being evil

You know, this is the first weekend in forever where I’m able to relax. I’ve been spending most of today catching up on some RSS feeds, resetting unread ones and starting afresh, and trying to get through an enormous pile of unread copies of Private Eye. None of this has anything to do with the following post.

Twitter appears to be flavour of the month – it got on the front page of the Guardian and it’s being used by both Downing Street and skin cancer awareness (leading to a somewhat disconcerting email alerts). It even has genuinely useful purposes – i.e. keeping up with the latest Arsenal scores. The tipping point isn’t just being covered in the mainstream press – lately I’ve noticed a huge spike in people following me, some who look like interesting human beings and others who look like spammers (I now have the “x is following you on Twitter” turned off, so if you’re genuinely think you have something interesting for me use the @qwghlm feature instead).

I’ve been on Twitter for aaages (since December 2006, which puts me around the 80,000th user mark – ooh get me), more than long enough to get a feel for the place. The BBC gets it half-right in the secret of its success:

The appeal of Twitter – and the thing that has persuaded me to spend more time there than on other social networks – is that it distills the essence of Facebook and chucks away most of the annoying stuff. I’d long tired of all the poking, vampires, SuperWalls and countless applications which cluttered up what was once a clean interface. What I still value is the status updates which allow me to see at a glance what my friends – and distant acquaintances – are up to, and that is what I get on Twitter.

It’s not just simplicity of reading and navigation though – it’s about simplicity of expression. My sixteen months on Twitter has covered a torrid breakup, various bouts of sadness and happiness that followed it, a Glastonbury festival and two holidays and trips down the pub too numerous to contemplate. It’s so simple I can use it to talk about these and more – every little jokes, puns, moans, observation, venting of steam etc. without the fiddly complicatedness of Facebook’s status system (even after they dropped the “is” last year, it’s still rubbish) and by a variety of means (web, IM, phone, special apps such as Twhirl).

The BBC article has missed out on this crucial element – Twitter would be nothing if people didn’t make stuff on it. It’s the fact it’s useful (and a little bit fun) that’s the key to success. People actually reading your Tweets – that’s an extra bonus as far as I’m concerned. Just like the vast majority of the blogs out there, most Twitter streams are read by handfuls of people (and mine is no exception). This makes it difficult to make money out of the entire operation – as the Beeb also points out:

Apparently Twitter’s managers are indeed wary about antagonising users with advertising, and are talking instead of marketing premium accounts to businesses who would use it to communicate with Twitterers like me. I don’t think that is going to be any more attractive to the community. I shared a communal cold shiver with a fellow technology journalist the other day when a PR firm started “following” both of us on Twitter. It’s the eternal problem for social networking entrepreneurs. The minute they start to try to “monetise” their users, they risk eroding the very thing that this community values – clean, noise-free communication.

I am currently entertaining the view that Twitter’s creators didn’t design to make money – at least, that is, they didn’t do it to make money on an ongoing basis. They would instead build it up & flog it to someone (ad network, mobile services provider, publishing service or Google) and leave the how-to-make-money problem for them to solve.

As for how to make regular money from Twitter – if such a thing is really necessary – the premium model idea isn’t a bad starting point. Some blogs carry ads & a few are entirely funded by them or sponsored placement; why not the same with Twitter streams? Charging Twitter subscribers for the capability to monetise their own streams by including ads, sponsored & branded posts etc. means the balance between keeping things genuine and being entirely commercial becomes a problem for the content provider, not Twitter as a whole. Ad-filled or plain lousy commercial Twitter streams will probably be ignored, the ones that get it right subscribed to & read. A far better solution than mindlessly dispensing ads to all.

This should really be on the firm’s blog rather than my own but fuck it, I thought of this in my own time on a Saturday so here it goes instead. :)

3 thoughts on “Twitter’s success, and how to make money off it without being evil

  1. Great post. I follow you and think that you mix useful stuff with humour in a quirky way. I found you on DoctorVee. I am finding that I am blocking more and more leeches. It always intrigued me how Twitter could make money and I think that they have significant barriers. Oh an you are so right on Facebook. I still go there a bit every now and again, but way too cumbersome.

  2. As for how to make regular money from Twitter – if such a thing is really necessary…

    An Economist article from a few months back interviewed Evan Williams of Twitter, and said

    “Exactly how to make money from Twitter remains an open question?one that Mr Williams is intellectually curious about, though it has not exactly been his main concern in the past.”

    The whole article can be read here. You may find it interesting, although then again you may not.

  3. One of the massive benefits of Twitter is that it’s a pull model as opposed to a push model, the difference between only seeing emails from people you care about and being spammed by everyone. So even though the “x is following you” is annoying, it doesn’t actually affect the way you use the application.

    JP writes some really interesting posts on the subject, one such example is here:

    and yes, the Arsenal Scores app is pretty awesome isn’t it… if I do say so myself ;)

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