citrus fortress

the semi-professional ramblings of mr. tony zito, concerning matters of product design, communities, &C.

How Twitter could start making money NOW without f*cking up a very, very good thing.

A few days ago, it was rumored that Twitter would begin charging brands for commercial use. This was soon denied, and rightly so — it makes no sense, as it’s just impossible to adequately delineate. There’s been talk of charging for “brand verification” as well, to ensure, say, that the person who claims to be the Dalai Lama really is the Dalai Lama, for instance. That makes some sense, but what’s the value to the brand? Do they really want a gold star next to their name announcing themselves as having paid to be at the table? I could see such a marker becoming a negative thing, announcing a) that you’re dumb enough to pay for what everyone else is doing for free, and b) tarnishing your realness/credibility. I don’t think that’s the way to go. Twitter must not change the basic interaction model they’ve established. No micropayments, no barriers to accumulating large followings, no premium tweets, no subscriptions. And no ads, not yet. (Though I don’t think that one would be a deal-breaker for consumers, ultimately.) It’s a delicate ecosystem, and the number one priority should be its continued growth. That said, there are a few moves Twitter could make that respect this ecosystem, put no barriers in its growth path, and allow it to start generating revenue now:

1. Be Twitter experts: Provide professional/marketing services (including advanced stats and analytics)

Companies are falling over themselves to get onto Twitter, and have NO IDEA where to start. I’m sure Kevin Thau is deluged with requests from Fortune 500 companies who just want to chat, try to figure out how they could “work together.” It’s time to start converting this heat into dollars. Twitter should start an ancillary professional services agency, to which all these requests could get diverted. Want to use Twitter for marketing? Hire Twitter to help you. Sure there are hundreds of “social media experts” out there who would happily take your money, but the EVP of Digital Marketing at Warner Brothers doesn’t have time to sort out the true talents from the sea of hucksters — she wants to go straight to the source, and feel confident that she is working with the foremost Twitter experts in the world: Twitter itself. Plus, only they have direct access to the database — a potential goldmine of brand perception and campaign performance information. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Twitter is the nearest thing to clairvoyance a marketer could have. The insights are raw, real-time, and nearly unmediated. That’s the stuff, and only Twitter’s got it. Now they need to start charging for it.

(Since I drafted this, Kevin Thau has announced that they are indeed pursuing this sort of approach. Excellent!)

2. Open up the vault: Provide access to historical data

Yes, Twitter is the closest thing we have to mind reading, and every single one of those thoughts is being saved, forever. Think about that for a second. As Twitter usage approaches ubiquity (still a long way off, but with 900% growth this year there’s no denying they’re moving in the right direction), their database starts to look like the most remarkable historical and anthropological asset even known to man. Imagine Twitter had existed on September 11, 2001. During the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the U.S. Civil War. Perhaps Historical Tweets was onto something? This is a resource that becomes more valuable each day that passes.

Currently, the search API only allows you to access records up to four months old, and by default prioritizes the newest records. Historical searches are impossible. One can imagine a model whereby Twitter charges for access to this historical archive, ala Lexis/Nexis. Libraries and Universities across the country would be paid subscribers, and this sort of service could demand a healthy premium.

3. Make the secondary market work for you: charge for premium API access

Twitter should not lose sight of the fact that it is not only a consumer-facing service, it is a very powerful open messaging layer and application platform. There is a whole secondary market emerging of clients and web apps built on top of Twitter and the Twitter API. Currently, a developer can request to be “whitelisted,” which raises the API request limit to 20,000 per hour. That’s pretty high — apparently all but the “largest consumers of [the] API” fit under that cap. But Twitter-based apps are still a nascent industry — as Twitter grows, the tide rises, and even the small apps will grow with it. Moreover, if this secondary market is really going to take off, entrepreneurs can’t be worried about their hit applications bumping into that ceiling. Hence, Twitter can keep the 20,000 cap for non-paying clients (remember one of the key philosophies here is to not take anything away that people are already getting — though it could be argued that the 20,000 cap, which was only instituted a couple of weeks ago, represents just such a revocation), and charge for added API requests, much how a CDN might charge per video stream. This way, instead of Twitter suffering as secondary apps achieve scale, and feeling the need to artifically limit them in order to cap that suffering, a mutually beneficial relationship is established: the more successful the secondary market is, the more successful Twitter becomes. Monetize the platform, not just the service.

The Twitter guys are all really smart. I’ve no doubt they’ve already thought of all of these things, and are either working on them, or have come up with good reasons why they shouldn’t. I’ve just been seeing so many really moronic Twitter business model posts (no, I won’t link to any; that would be ungentlemanly) that I felt the need to put in my 2c and hopefully raise the level of discourse. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.