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Twitter seems to be moving towards a ‘walled garden’ model, with hosted ads. But is there another way forward?

As recently reported here on Econsultancy, Twitter’s API is ‘evolving’. It’s already removed personal Twitter feeds from LinkedIn, and is threatening to revise the terms of its API so that third parties like Tweetbot and Tweetie can no longer replicate its core experience on their sites. 

Some commentators see this as a move towards a ‘walled garden’ model, like Facebook’s, where people must use Twitter’s own sites or apps to access the core experience.

Once there, they’ll be obliged to put up with whatever ads Twitter sees fit to host. The strategy gives Twitter full control over the format of advertising, and also the option to integrate more added-value stuff (games, e-commerce etc). 

Basic appeal

I imagine most users could live with using Twitter’s own platforms, but whether they’d take to advertising is another matter. And I seriously question whether anyone is really waiting for Twitter to become a shopping or life-management channel. 

Sure, people might ask their followers for their view on a product or service they’re thinking about buying. But for everything else, there’s Google. 

Twitter’s problem is that its core appeal is pretty basic: broadcast, search and reply to SMS-type text messages. As a very ‘verbal’ person, I love it – it’s the only social site I use. But Twitter will never replace Facebook for people who like that experience, and it can’t overtake Google from where it stands now.

It’s a brilliant tool, but it will never be a Swiss Army knife. 

Around the outside

Twitter could go for the ‘relevant ads down the side’ model, but with clickthrough rates on Facebook ads looking so weak, why would they want to?

Assuming they don’t, we’ll presumably see new versions of Promoted Tweets and Promoted Trends that are more smoothly integrated into people’s timelines (better) or simply made louder and more intrusive (worse). 

Either way, advertisers will probably have to endure resistance and derision of their messages through the mechanisms of the site itself. Unlike Facebook, where slick commercial presences are Liked by many, Twitter is a place where good publicity is earned, not bought.

Tweeters don’t like being told what to think, even if there’s a voucher in it. 

Mother of all networks

Understandably, owners of sites that use Twitter’s API aren’t happy about the drawbridge being pulled up. In fact, they feel betrayed. "Why not just keep the API, and push the ads to our sites?" they ask. "Twitter could be the mother of all ad networks".

Clearly, Twitter doesn’t want to be an ad network, pumping out commercial content all over the web. It’s easy to see why. However the content is integrated into feeds, timelines or trends, it can only pollute the user experience, raising issues for those who host Twitter content.

Meanwhile, Twitter has to deal with exactly the same problems, maintain its position as prime provider of the experience it invented and make sure its ads work across myriad platforms.  

The problems for publishers are illustrated by the case of LinkedIn. Let’s say I connect Twitter to LinkedIn, so my feed appears on my profile there. What commercial content might interest someone browsing my LinkedIn profile?

The most likely answer is an ad for one of my competitors, selected on the basis of my ‘work’ tweets. Alternatively, it might be an ad for something irrelevant like Cheddars, based on my ‘frivolous’ tweets. 

Either way, it's hardly appropriate for my LinkedIn profile, and if I can opt out of hosting it, I surely will. Similarly, I’d never pull my Twitter feed to my own site if it included links to my rivals or ads for irrelevant nonsense. The benefits don't outweigh the costs. 

Ways to pay

It looks like Twitter won’t change its mind. But it could still do a Spotify, and offer a ‘freemium’ service where users can opt to pay for an ad-free experience. If it goes down this road, it will have to strike the tricky balance between monetising its user base and alienating its advertisers. 

The people most likely to pay for Twitter are its most committed and enthusiastic users; advertisers aren’t going to be crazy about paying to target thousands of rarely used or dormant accounts while the most valuable prospects frolic in a garden within a garden. 

So what about the fully paid model? How much would you pay to use Twitter? It’s a question that flies in the face of the ‘free to use’ philosophy, but it’s worth considering.  

The immediate objection is the impact on accessibility. Twitter gains a lot of kudos when it plays host to ‘social issue’ trends like those relating to Trafigura or Iran. With access limited to those who are willing to pay, which hurts users in developing countries the most, that claim to universality takes a big knock. 

But let’s get real. What sort of money are we talking? How about $10 a year? That’s surely a reasonable and manageable sum for those who really appreciate Twitter, from practically anywhere in the world. A trial period could help new users get into the experience before committing. 

Of course, not everyone will go for it. But if just one-tenth of Twitter’s 500m active users paid up, the revenue realised would be $500m a year. For context, that’s roughly three times what the site made from advertising during 2011. 

On the plus side, it would keep the platform free of ads – and free of the obligation to cater to advertisers’ wishes. It would deal a killer blow to the spambots that plague bona fide users. And it would bring in cash that could be used to improve the core experience in ways users actually want. 

In fact, it would move Twitter away from Facebook and put it in the same camp as Apple: walling in the garden, but making life inside so appealing that people don’t mind paying. 

For me, it’s a no-brainer. Twitter should stop trying to be Facebook, and start charging us to use it. 

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Published 11 July, 2012 by Tom Albrighton

Tom Albrighton is a copywriter and contributor to Econsultancy. He blogs here and tweets here. You can also add Tom to your Google+ circles. 

16 more posts from this author

Comments (19)

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ray

the mantra is relevant "information" — not "targeted ads". there is a distinction. and if the user doesn't feel this information is relevant and integrated well enough into their intentional experience then you may have a point.

it's why googlers users don't want relevant info (or "ads") removed. however, there is long term argument brewing with big G that in time as their results will become less relevant - even they might charge a subscription. these business models just emergently happen and can't be predicted before hand.

over 4 years ago

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Victor

The Twitter logo has changed...!

over 4 years ago

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Artie Gold

Meh.
It's really all about balance. Would I pay for the service? Probably not. Something else will come down the road. Do I mind a little advertising? No. Would I stand for more? Yeah. A little. But at some point a line will be crossed. (I was watching a few moments of some episodic TV show or movie or somesuch the other day -- the the phrase "MySpace friends" was uttered. It sounded quite quaint.)

The road of maximal monetization can yield great rides and spectacular views but is not typically long traveled. And "quaint" always lurks just around the corner.

over 4 years ago

Gareth Rees

Gareth Rees, Media Portfolio Lead at Personal

I wouldn't regard Twitter as competing with Facebook or Google, unless we are talking about the broadest definition of competing for people's time or advertisers' pounds.

The fully paid model potentially does have legs, given figures bandied about a while ago suggesting 10% of users produce 90% of tweets.

However this would completely remove any suggestion that Twitter was even in the same ballpark as Facebook, Google etc. in terms of its digital footprint and influence, and raises serious questions about the extent to which it has infiltrated mainstream media to date.

over 4 years ago

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Mike Dunphy

Maybe you pay to follow celebrities but not joe public, this works for Bubbly with about 80% of the 17 or so million subscribers paying to follow. As usual it's the Eastern world that think about how to generate revenue before they launch a service.....

over 4 years ago

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Rudi de Groot

Normally I like the posts on econsultancy, but stating that people should pay for Twitter is utter nonsense. I see Twitter as the communication channel of the future, and the future of everything is open and so will Twitter be :)

over 4 years ago

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David

Twitter has to make money, that's a given. But charging people is just going to put off a lot of people using it and signing up. If anything, why not charge the heavy users for some sort of premium upgrade? A better profile experience for instance or a move towards Facebook style brand pages with celebrities and brands charged $0.01+ for ppc ads on their own page advertising new albums, gigs, car launches, promotions or whatever.

Twitter has to contend with Facebook knowing they're never going to be as popular or generate as much revenue. But they do need to stop living in their shadow before they become the next myspace.

Twitter innovated, proved that social could be global. That messages didn't need to be hidden behind a login. But as great as this is, it is also Twitters biggest issue. I cannot think of many websites that ask for email verification, but then don't enforce it. There is an issue with spam on Twitter, so forcing people to verify their email before use would mean a big headache for anybody running spam campaigns.

over 4 years ago

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David Rankin

which planet are you from ? No-one is going to pay for access to Twitter. That would just cause a mass revolt and a switch to Facebook

over 4 years ago

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@Fiachra

Twitter has got to make money if it's going to survive, but I don't know that it's going about it the right way.

It has certainly made Twitter less useful to me that I cannot easily replicate updates from it to LinkedIn.

(No, I don't want to adopt the ghastly LinkedIn interface as my main place for updates and yes, I want to be able to use various clients to post Twitter updates that appear on LinkedIn.)

As for paying Twitter... Er, that would be a big, fat no-way.

over 4 years ago

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Shaun

I am not sure why people think they have a right to use something for free?
This is the problem with social media in its current model, it is currently just there to collect user information to sell to advertisers. I for one would advocate a small charge of $5 or $10 a year for twitter and facebook, just to keep it a) ad free and b) spam free.
These are tools and sites you use everyday, why should they be free?

over 4 years ago

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Paul Weston

Can you see Twitter opting to drop 90% of its users?

Marks & Spencer, for example, is using Twitter to advertise to over 86,000 followers. Are they paying for it? If not, should they?

over 4 years ago

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Ashley O'Leary, Design & Marketing Manager at Design Print & Media Ltd

Great post. I think twitter should definitely not try to be another FB as it cannot compete. Take a strong stance and keep the user experience amazing and within the Tweeters hands.

over 4 years ago

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Ilona Reynolds

To David Rankin sayin charging for twitter would cause a 'mass revolt and a switch to Facebook'. They serve two totally different purposes.

I like my information delivered to me frequently, in bite sized pieces that I can then go and read more about if I want to. I like the fact that it's like a stream of consciousness, and that it's fast paced and conversational. For me facebook it too clunky, there are too many people posting updates about games they are playing that really I don't care about, and when looking at it on my phone the length of the posts mean I can often only see one or two.

For me it's a time and digestability factor. I'd happily pay a small amount (particularly to keep it spam free).

over 4 years ago

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Ryan Cormack, Marketing Executive at brightsolid Online Innovation

I am not sure it is so clean cut as that. If 10% paid to use it, and everyone else was shut out, I don't think that 10% would be staying there for very long. Of the initial 10% that remained, they would only have 10% of their followers, and more importantly, they would only have 10% of the people to follow.

That just wont work

over 4 years ago

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Tom Albrighton, Digital and SEO copywriter at ABC Copywriting

Thanks to almost everyone who commented.

The ‘10%’ argument can be seen a number of ways. I would suggest that cutting off 90% of Twitter wouldn’t be as big a loss as it might seem. I follow >3500 people, but interact with a far smaller number. Similarly, I’m followed by >4300 people, but I doubt that many are really interested in what I have to say. If Twitter’s offer was ‘smaller network, no spam, no ads forever’, I’d pay for that.

We all know how many accounts are dormant, rarely used or outright spam. As an advertiser, I’d rather have a smaller network that I know is active and interested, rather than chasing big numbers for their own sake.

I find it interesting that so many people are so strongly committed to the ‘free forever’ philosophy. Clearly, it’s hugely significant and emotive for people to hand over cash money to use a website – even if it’s an amount as trivial as 83¢ a month.

However, as commenters have pointed out, there’s no such thing as a genuinely free lunch – if the site is ‘free’, your ‘payment’ is simply made in other forms, such as the inconvenience of having to sit through preceding ads on YouTube, or the intrusion of having your behaviour monitored on Facebook.

Maybe this is partly a generational thing. For younger people with little cash, plenty of time and a relaxed attitude towards sharing personal info, it makes sense to go for free-to-use sites that exact payment in other ways. Once you’re a bit older, and you have more cash, less free time and perhaps less willingness to share data about yourself and your family, you’re perhaps more inclined to pay a little to avoid all those other hassles.

However, if we take that argument a step further, we can see what bad news it is for advertisers. We already know that young people are the heaviest users of social sites – but if they’re also the poorest, is it really worth advertising to them? Again, as an advertiser, I’d much rather target a pool of affluent, committed older members than an ocean of casual, cash-poor younger users.

It’s easy to say ‘advertisers should pay’, but if the ads don’t work, the sites won’t either. As I write, Facebook shares have dipped below $30 on Mashable’s exposé of fake brand pages attracting thousands of Likes. Advertisers aren’t going to just throw money at social forever.

over 4 years ago

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Aaron

I agree that it would be nice to be able to pay for an ad-free experience for any site, be it Twitter, FB or Youtube.

over 4 years ago

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Simon

terrible idea, it's techies that made twitter, they were the early adopters, way before the marketeers got a whiff of it and effectively turned twitter into AOL Keywords v2.0. Technical people know how to block adverts

over 4 years ago

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Delilah

You are incredibly misguided if you believe every Twitter user in the world, particularly those in developing countries, could in fact afford 10 dollars.

almost 4 years ago

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Tom Albrighton, Digital and SEO copywriter at ABC Copywriting

@Delilah

Please don't misrepresent my argument. At no point did I state, or imply, that everyone in the world would be able or willing to pay $10 a year for Twitter.

In fact, I explicitly acknowledged that charging would limit the platform's appeal, and that many of those excluded would be in the developing world.

Here are some quotes (capitals added):

"With access limited to those who are willing to pay, which HURTS USERS IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES THE MOST, that claim to universality takes a big knock."

"…$10 a year? That’s surely a reasonable and manageable sum for those who really appreciate Twitter, from PRACTICALLY anywhere in the world."

"Of course, NOT EVERYONE WILL GO FOR IT."

$10 a year is a nominal figure chosen for the sake of argument. The actual fee could be far lower.

If you are online, you are by definition in a position to spend a few dollars per year on visiting a cyber café at the very least. You might not have $10 left over to spend on Twitter, but you do have some disposable income to spend on going online.

almost 4 years ago

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