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It's no secret that social media and a subscription business model doesn't exactly go hand and hand. There's a reason that the world's most popular social media websites are free to use.

But just how difficult would it be for a company like Twitter to charge its users? According to the 2010 USC Annenberg Digital Future Study (PDF), zero percent of users polled indicated that they'd be willing to pay for Twitter. That makes finding a way for newspapers to charge for their websites look like a walk in the park.

Of course, the difficulty in getting consumers to open up their wallets for digital subscriptions shouldn't come as a surprise. There's practically no evidence that Twitter and other popular social networking sites, like Facebook, have seriously considered plans to charge their users, and for a good reason: everybody knows it wouldn't work.

But that's not the end of the story. Running a service like Twitter costs money. And by in large, the entities that will be footing the bill are companies looking to reach consumers on Twitter; in other words, advertisers.

But even though users prefer ads to direct payments, advertising isn't exactly popular either. Jeffrey I. Cole, who is the director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, noted:

Users express strong negative views about online advertising, but they still prefer seeing ads as an alternative to paying for content. Consumers really want free content without advertising, but ultimately they understand that content has to be paid for -- one way or another.

Advertisers, of course, are generally not unaware that many consumers don't like advertising. Banner ad blindness, for instance, isn't a new phenomenon. But Cole's comment highlights an inconvenient truth: while consumers prefer to 'pay for' services like Twitter by tolerating advertising in some form or another, in an ideal world they'd prefer no advertising whatsoever. In other words, ads are the lesser of two evils, but they're still an evil.

While none of this is to say that platforms like Twitter can't drive meaningful results -- regardless of how consumers feel about paying for service -- the zero percent figure from the Annenberg study should give advertisers pause. If users won't even express a willingness to pay for some of the most popular services on the web, perhaps it's time for advertisers to ask themselves why they're so eager to.

Photo credit: carrotcreative via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 27 July, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2419 more posts from this author

Comments (4)


Joe Cibula

We're transitioning from a push marketing economy to a pull economy wherein the consumer produces queries and the job of businesses is to deliver relevant responses. Advertisers would be well-served to add inverse search and paying per response to their marketing mix. The ROI is as close to 100% as they can get.

over 6 years ago


Jim Ducharme

The problem for charging users for a service such as Twitter or FB is that there is always some other guy/gal working on something in their basement which will be free. Advertisers will go where the fish are -- if you've got the eyeballs it's much easier to generate revenue through advertisers than it is to do via your members/subscribers. While I agree that people do like to swim where the other fish are, I'm not going to say that FB or Twitter are now too big to fail. Fact is, they could fail and the community which has built them could just as easily go elsewhere. If Twitter and FB fail to listen to the people which have built their success and impose decisions/policy which are made in a vacuum, they run a high risk of joining MySpace as an also ran. That simply is the reality of the web. It's up to social media platforms to use some out of the box thinking to generate revenue from advertisers via innovative tactics. I'm always stumped as to why these guys fall back on what amounts to traditional media advertising methods. Regards, jim

over 6 years ago


Michael The Write Stuff

Many people would not pay for Twitter, but many will pay for services such as Hootsuite, etc. So one idea is to keep massive traffic on board, while developing apps and tools to really mine that traffic.

about 6 years ago


Deepak Mohapatra

Twitter is one way of expressing or sharing anything in short msg. its good for people who want connect with others faster. Today this application is accessible on any mobile device. and people are highly recommending this. Another reason is now any celebrity (politicians, Actors, professionals, etc) is on twitter to share their views, so it would be easier for us to connect with them directly than any other way of communication.

Now-a-days getting connected on Social media is fastest than any other media and advertisers are eyeing on this. So, brand awareness is faster here,so far as the urban marketing is concerned. However, instead of the site charges its users for the content, i would prefer they should charge the users through the advertisers for the content. They can highlight a particular content on the web and ask for sponsors and then part of the content could be sold to the end users.

Some more thoughts are also coming to my mind...ll share soon after hearing from u all... 

about 6 years ago

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