Dear Twitter – don’t screw this up!

Dear @jack, @dickc and all your board members,

You’ve been a part of one of the most talked about startup stories of the last 10 years, presiding over a phenomenon in social networking unparalleled in its short history.  Sure, everyone’s yammering on about Facebook – if my grandmother were alive, I’m sure she’d have a Facebook account, too.  But the conversation around Twitter is materially different – you aren’t a glorified message board duplicating Google’s playbook; you’re at the tip of the spear of a god-damned, bona fide communications revolution!

But at this important inflection point for your business, you are in danger of screwing it all up.  And that would free up WAY too much time for me, so I am writing this letter in hopes of helping you not screw it up, so I can keep all my imaginary friends and the illusion of popularity I currently enjoy.

So to kick things off, let’s be clear on what you are and are not.  You are not a valuable technology company – your technology would be worth about 15 cents if it weren’t for the network of people that use your technology, and use it in a very committed way.  You are a valuable information company, because amongst all of those inane, superfluous tweets about coffee, cute pictures of kittens, and @mashable retweets, real information is being shared and received.  You are damn near to the 21st century what the Gutenberg printing press was to the Renaissance.

Your value, then, is that you ENABLE millions of people to communicate easily with each other, and share thoughts and ideas.  It’s those interactions with each other that create your value; it is NOT your interactions with them, or companies’ interactions with them – that is just a re-warmed, soggy, and perhaps slightly moldy iteration of a broadcast metaphor.  Yeah – I’ve seen the endless blog posts blathering on about how companies can create engagement and community with their customers; that is, after all, the “secret sauce” du jour of the social media pundits.  The problem is, I don’t believe it, and neither should you – at least not for about 99.95% of companies out there.  Can you build a community around Rolls Royce or Adobe? Sure.  Around Campbell’s Soup?  Not so much . . . and in any case, that sort of community, if it can exist, is not well served by your technology.  The body of real evidence I have seen – keeping in mind we are still very early in the social revolution – is that the single most important reason people want a relationship with a brand is to receive promotional discounts.  That’s it.

But because I’m sure you’ve convinced yourselves you have a strong and loyal user base, you might be inclined to monetize your network infrastructure the way early 20th century radio, and later TV, monetized theirs – by monetizing ears (or eyes).  Yes, you could ALSO pull out the Google playbook, and insist that because you have such a large and committed user base, you are a great ad platform, just as Google – and then Facebook – have done.

There are a couple of problems with that position, though, the most important of which is this: people aren’t committed to Twitter.  They are committed to a new way of communicating with each other in a very busy and noisy world – they like the micro-conversations they can have using these tools, and they like the ready access to information such conversations provide.  You provide a non-spammy and very low cost way of having these conversations, in terms of time and effort. This communications pattern doesn’t lend itself well to advertising; in fact, the Twitter community actively attacks any efforts to turn it into an advertising medium.  They didn’t call it a “Dick Bar” for nothing . . .

Also, because people aren’t committed to Twitter, per se, they aren’t committed to your website – more on that later, but suffice it to say for now that even if you have convinced yourselves you had a sustainable ad model, your prime ad real estate – your website – is the least effective way for dedicated users to use your service.  In fact, your service lends itself better than any other social network to the mobile platform, and that platform is becoming much less about the unnatural grafting of web technology onto mobile, and more about mobile native applications . . . Um, iPhone and Android, anyone?

At this point you may be inclined to think I’m naïve – aren’t Google and Facebook making pretty decent coin on ad sales?  Sure they are – which proves one thing: lots of marketers are looking for new ways to market, and are buying ads on those properties.  Unfortunately, what no one seems able to prove is that those ads are better – or even as good – at generating new sales than more traditional marketing techniques.  The hard data just isn’t there to support it.  Will you make money if you can figure out how to do it? Probably.  But at what cost?

You see, the value of Twitter is the quantity and quality of the interactions that travel over your technology.  People “check out” Facebook, but those interested in being truly engaged go to Twitter – it’s micro-conversations with their friends and followers that count.  These interactions need to flow freely to aggregate the value of millions of conversations – this is why ads are a really bad idea.  They are a disincentive to participation: I personally believe if Twitter gets too spammy, there is a kid in a college dorm room working on its replacement (or could be in a very brief matter of time).  The truth about marketing platforms, marketing “techniques,” is that they always decline in effectiveness – people avoid ads, or they tune them out.  Given the very lean interface for Twitter?  The only way to “tune out” is to “drop out.”  That relatively small but hardcore group of committed users will go away, your ad rates will drop, and you’ll be the answer to a trivia question by 2020.

But you have to make money – I want you to make money, so that you keep offering me this phenomenal communications platform that reflects perfectly my sense of commitment to interactions with my social group: I love doing it, but I am not willing to regularly commit the time to an email, much less a phone call.  With your platform, I can communicate much more frequently, in easily digestible bites: a win for me and my (highly suspect) time management skills, and a win for you, because you can capture and store those interactions to be mined later.

So what should you do, Twitter?  Here are a few thoughts from a passionate observer.

Make it easy for people to connect with their existing relationships on Twitter.

Much has been made of the apparent fact that lots of people sign up for Twitter, but a very large percentage of those do not use it on a regular basis – most of the comments I hear on this point run along the lines of “I just don’t get it.”  I don’t know about you, but when I go to a party, I am lost until I find a friend who helps ease me into the scene.  The same is true of Twitter – it’s very clubby, and the best way to feel comfortable there is to start with a few good friends.  If there is an easy way to find my IRL friends on Twitter, I haven’t found it; provide it, and get more people involved.  And DON’T make me go to to do it – I couldn’t care less about

Forget the web; mobile is where it’s at.

If I am sitting in front of a computer, focused on a computer screen, I am probably working, and therefore extremely unlikely to care about going to so you can serve me ads.  I would guess a large, and growing, percentage of interactions on Twitter are via mobile clients (you actually have the data, if you wanted to prove it to yourselves).  I am not going to a web page on my mobile phone – as great an idea as that sounded in 2005, the reality is that viewing web pages on a mobile device is painful.  That’s why the number of mobile-native applications is growing and will continue to grow.  A smartphone isn’t a stand-in for a computer while you’re away from your desk; it is a mobile computing device in its own right, with associated form-factor considerations not met by “mobile-izing a web page.”

There is an important corollary to this Mobile Computing rule: you will get my most honest, direct feedback about a company when I am actively interacting with it.  I will say the service is great, or lousy, or that a product could be much more useful with additional functionality in the moment; it is highly unlikely that I will remember that feedback by the time I get back in front of my computer.  Mobile computing enables spontaneous feedback, which I think best captures the true spirit of an interaction.

Leverage Tweetdeck as a “universal” client.

You don’t need a web page; you need a client – for a couple of reasons.  The first is for the reason above – a client holds greater promise of providing a consistent user experience across platforms; the same is NOT true of a web page.  The second reason is more important: as more people use the platform more frequently, the amount of information available will expand.  While you have tens of thousands of followers, I would guess you are only following a few dozen.  For the average frequent user, they are likely following hundreds. The key functionality of a good Twitter client – Tweetdeck, for example – is the ability to organize hundreds of people I’m following into special interest groups: I have “Inner circle,” “Sports,” “Social Media,” etc. – groups I manage through Tweetdeck, making the experience much more valuable to me.  If I had to view everything in my stream all the time, the amount of time I spend filtering would make the effort far greater than the value of Twitter to me.  Don’t make the mistake of confusing “you” for “your user;” seek to understand how committed users really leverage Twitter.

Channelize content.

Just as I filter content, you should “channelize” content.  Organizations are using Twitter to pimp their news stories?  Offer a news channel they can pay to belong to, and that users could mass follow – users easily find news accounts; news accounts easily get followers.  Everyone wins.  By the way, promotional discounts could be another channel . . . (Die, Groupon, Die!).

Sell (sanitized) data.

You ARE Big Data about consumer behavior.  Among all the drivel and banality are nuggets to be mined.  Sell subscriptions to that raw data.  If you tried it before, try again because you did it wrong: Google MADE its fortune in selling relevant access to information; they monetized that fortune by selling ads . . .

Create and sell datasets.

Not everyone has the capability to mine enormous amounts of raw data for relevant consumer insights.  So help them.  Create (sanitized!) data sets relevant to various interests – say, consumer electronics.  Mine your data, pull relevant datasets, and provide preliminary analysis of that data.  You could even begin selling subscriptions to analyst insights gleaned from those datasets.  Stop thinking of yourselves as Google and Facebook; start thinking of yourselves as Dow or Moody’s or Barron’s.

Align yourselves with CRM and Product Data Management technology vendors.

The MarComm folks were the early adopters of social technology, and as communicators have to a great extent formed the Social message as a “media” message.  It is much more than that.  Social Media may be about using the social technologies as another way to market to people; Social Networking is about the willingness of the market to come together and interact with each other.  And just as you find gas stations where lots of cars drive by, so too should companies find a way to be where their market is.

The Social Media pundits will talk about the need for a community manager to become the face of your brand on the social networks; I think companies should think about Social for what it should be to them – a new channel to interact with their customers.  Not just to talk, but to engage in all the activities that lead to value creation in a company – sales, product development, support, etc.  To do so doesn’t require a community manager, it requires routing and integration of interactions in the social sphere to the right people within the company, at the right time.  Twitter could mine your data and route it to appropriate interfaces for the company to act upon – sales inquiries go to the sales group via the lead management system; customer service requests go to the customer service group via the request management system.  There is a lot there, but suffice it to say that while the interfaces are more or less easy to implement, finding and then sending the right messages to the right interfaces is much more difficult.  Twitter becomes a much more effective lead generation source than, for example, a list management vendor would be; it could better capture substantial customer feedback to support customer service and product development information than a community manager ever will.

Those are some of my ideas – perhaps you are thinking about some or all of them already.  Perhaps you are thinking of even better ideas that are just around the corner.  The “Dick Bar” and “Promoted Tweets” don’t qualify, in my opinion, but you may be on the verge of launching a “Deep Throat” project that will turn the social revolution on its head.  But I can’t help thinking, from the outside looking in, that you are on a very fast and furious ride, with no one at the wheel.  You have tremendous potential power and influence, and your value proposition isn’t “easy,” but the hidden value there is enormous.

That value won’t come from crossing out the Facebook logo on the Google game plan, and covering it with the Twitter logo, although  I know it is easy and perhaps comforting to convince yourselves of that.  And there are substantial operational challenges to what I suggest, not the least of which is distribution.  I am sure your VCs are pushing you toward an ad model; I am sure marketers are banging down your door trying to get ad space so they can reverse their fortunes and perhaps use this “Social Media” thing to finally get a seat at the big table. But those of us that use Twitter are not your product; the information we provide via Twitter is.  You need to think bigger, and better, to make the money you need to keep providing the platform we love.

Don’t screw this up for me, Twitter – I NEED my imaginary friends to keep what’s left of my sanity . . .


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  • Steve Curtin

    Kevin, I can truly say that this analysis has challenged some of my assumptions about social media in general and Twitter specifically.  Keen insight. Well written. Kudos.