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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Six ways Twitter can make money

A web 2.0-sized boatload of buzz has surrounded Twitter, the addictive service that allows its users to answer one simple question: what are you doing? The service has made appearances in everything from your friend's blog to the New York Times, and everyone seems jazzed about how fun tweeting is. While we're all having a good time, however, its creators, Obvious, keep hinting at how many practical uses they have up their sleeve for Twitter. Even though they haven't revealed any of their cards just yet, the rest of us are left wondering: how is such a seemingly frivolous service going to make money?

As a user who has taken the Twitter pill hook, line and sinker, I've been mulling this question for some time now. I came up with a few strategies, but then I figured: why not run them by the Twitter crew themselves? The least they could say was 'no comment,' but fortunately Evan Williams, one of Obvious and Twitter's founders, responded with a few of his own. Read on for my attempts at making Twitter some money (I'm waiting for my job offer Ev), as well as some choice words and ideas of his own from Evan.

  • Twitter Pro - This is one obvious move. Twitter Pro could be a paid service that offers more features, unlimited tweets vs. a 'standard' account that receive a daily/weekly limit. It could also include a mobile phone/Windows Mobile/BlackBerry client with more robust tweeting/following tools that use the web to transmit tweets, avoiding those nasty SMS charges. It could also allow tweeting pics and videos from around the web with a Tumblr-like K.I.S.S. philosophy.
  • Merchandise - A while back (though I admittedly can't find a link right now), Evan said merch was a big revenue generator for Blogger, and Twitter has worlds more buzz surrounding it right now. Heck, they even rolled out a small batch of shirts for SXSW, over which users seemed to be pretty excited. As ready as we may be to plunk down some cash for the privilege of using a t-shirt to tell people where we waste most of our time, Ev directly replied to this one: "RE: merchandise - It was, at one time, a noticeable part of Blogger's revenue, but that's when Blogger was just me, scraping by; my guess is it wouldn't make a blip in Twitter's costs today. Unless we figured out how to be a trendy new apparel brand." Sorry everyone, but it sounds like apparel isn't exactly on their list of features to roll out in the next update.
  • Twitter for Business a lá Google Apps - Customized, secure software that businesses can run on their own intranet. BlackBerry and WinMo clients are a more apparent option here. Obviously, this could become tremendously useful if Twitter built in some hooks that work like Stikkit and Google Calendar, allowing employees to easily tweet appointments and tasks to a centralized PIM system, and automatically be subscribed to their team's tweets without any extra effort on their part.
  • Twitter Forums, ad-supported - Finally, an innovation brought to the aging discussion forum format. Sort of a Twitter approach to Yahoo! Answers, allowing users to post questions and follow threads they're interested in, with the Twitter format forcing everyone to keep things simple and on-topic. Instead of ads, this could also possibly be just for Pro customers. One of the catches here is that Twitter users only see tweets from people they are following. When submitting a question to a Twitter Forum, you would be able to see all replies to the question, even the ones from users you've never met and aren't following.
Evan didn't let me have all the fun with brainstorming, however, and he offered two of his own ideas which I would assume are a good bet the company is working on, since he shared them with this lowly blogger:
Two more-straightforward ideas: 1) Ads on the site. We have a little AdSense on there now, but we haven't really tried. As the traffic grows, some tasteful sponsorships might be sellable. 2) Charging companies who are using it for marketing or other commercial purposes. If an organization finds Twitter to be a valuable communication tool with their customers/constituents/etc -- especially if we're sending lots of SMS's for them, which cost us money -- it seems viable to make an offering around that.
So there you have it: six ways Twitter can make money, two of which are straight from the lion's mouth. Judging from the sheer magnitude of buzz surrounding the recently-incorporated company, I wouldn't be surprised if these six are but a drop in the bucket. There's good news for those who fear change, however: no matter which way Twitter decides to start paying their exponentially growing bandwidth bills, Evan assured me that: "Our top concern when it comes to monetization will be to do so in a way that does not negatively impact users." Good show guys; your users will appreciate being able to spend their time tweeting about how they're spending their time, with the least amount of distraction.

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