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.