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7.5 Twitter and the Rise of Microblogging

Learning Objectives

  1. Appreciate the rapid rise of Twitter—its scale, scope, and broad appeal.
  2. Understand how Twitter is being used by individuals, organizations, and political movements.
  3. Contrast Twitter and microblogging with Facebook, conventional blogs, and other Web 2.0 efforts.
  4. Consider the commercial viability of the effort, its competitive environment, and concerns regarding limited revenue.

Spawned in 2006 as a side project at the now-failed podcasting start-up Odeo (an effort backed by Blogger.com founder Evan Williams), Twitter has been on a rocket ride. The site’s user numbers have blasted past both mainstream and new media sites, dwarfing the New York Times and LinkedIn, among others. Reports surfaced of rebuffed buyout offers as high as $500 million.S. Ante, “Facebook’s Thiel Explains Failed Twitter Takeover,” BusinessWeek, March 1, 2009. By its fifth birthday the firm’s 500 employees were supporting a global phenomenon embraced by over two hundred million users worldwide,P. Kafka, “Twitter CEO Dick Costolo Talks about His New Photo Service, but Not about Profits,” AllThingsD, June 1, 2011. including some 13 percent of U.S. adults.B. Womack and B. Pulley, “Twitter Use Climbs to 13% of U.S. Adults Online Boosted by Older Americans,” Bloomberg, June 1, 2011. In fact, by 2011 Twitter’s reach was so broad that the stealth raid that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden was inadvertently live-tweeted by an IT-savvy neighbor, commenting on the ruckus in the neighborhood.

Figure 7.2 Bin Laden’s Neighbor Accidentally Tweets the U.S. Raid

Tweets (topmost is most recent) by Abbottabad, Pakistan—based IT consultant Sohaib Athar (Twitter handle @ReallyVirtal), who had no idea (1) that Osama Bin Laden was his neighbor and (2) that his tweets about the neighborhood disturbance were actually a live account of a U.S. raid.J. O’Dell, “One Twitter User Reports Live from Osama Bin Laden Raid,” Mashable, May 2, 2011.

Twitter is a microbloggingA type of short-message blogging, often made via mobile device. Microblogs are designed to provide rapid notification to their readership (e.g., a news flash, an update on one’s activities), rather than detailed or in-depth comments. Twitter is the most popular microblogging service. service that allows users to post 140-character messages (tweetsA Twitter post, limited to 140 characters.) via the Web, SMSA text messaging standard used by many mobile phones., or a variety of third-party desktop and smartphone applications. The microblog moniker is a bit of a misnomer. The service actually has more in common with Facebook’s status updates and news feeds than it does with traditional blogs. But unlike Facebook, where most users must approve “friends” before they can see status updates, Twitter’s default setting allows for asymmetrical following (although it is possible to set up private Twitter accounts and to block followers).

Sure, there’s a lot of inane “tweeting” going on—lots of meaningless updates that read, “I’m having a sandwich” or “in line at the airport.” But while not every user may have something worthwhile to tweet, many find that Twitter makes for invaluable reading, offering a sense of what friends, customers, thought leaders, and newsmakers are thinking. Twitter leadership has described the service as communicating “The Pulse of the Planet.”E. Schonfeld, “Twitter's Internal Strategy Laid Bare: To Be ‘The Pulse of The Planet,’” TechCrunch, July 19, 2009. For many, Twitter is a discovery engine, a taste-making machine, a critical source of market intelligence, a source of breaking news, and an instantaneous way to plug into the moment’s zeitgeist.

Many also find Twitter to be an effective tool for quickly blasting queries to friends, colleagues, or strangers who might offer potentially valuable input. Says futurist Paul Saffo, “Instead of creating the group you want, you send it and the group self-assembles.”C. Miller, “Putting Twitter’s World to Use,” New York Times, April 13, 2009. Users can classify comments on a given topic using hash tagsA method for organizing tweets where keywords are preceeded by the # character. (keywords preceded by the “#” or “hash” symbol), allowing others to quickly find related tweets (e.g., #iranelection, #mumbai, #swineflu, #sxsw). Any user can create a hash tag—just type it into your tweet (you may want to search Twitter first to make sure that the tag is not in use by an unrelated topic and that if it is in use, it appropriately describes how you want your tweet classified).

Twitter users have broken news during disasters, terror attacks, and other major events. Dictators fear the people power Twitter enables, and totalitarian governments worldwide have moved to block citizen access to the service (prompting Twitter to work on censor-evading technology). During the 2009 Iranian election protests, the U.S. State Department even asked Twitter to postpone maintenance to ensure the service would continue to be available to support the voice and activism of Iran’s democracy advocates.C. Ruffini, “State Dept. Asked Twitter to Delay Maintenance,” CBS News, June 16, 2009.

Twitter is also emerging as a legitimate business tool. Consider the following commercial examples:

  • Starbucks uses Twitter in a variety of ways. It has run Twitter-based contests and used the service to spread free samples of new products, such as its VIA instant coffee line. Twitter has also been a way for the company to engage customers in its cause-based marketing efforts, such as (Starbucks) RED, which supports (Product) RED. Starbucks has even recruited staff via Twitter and was one of the first firms to participate in Twitter’s advertising model featuring “promoted tweets.”
  • Dell used Twitter to uncover an early warning sign indicating poor design of the keyboard on one of its portable computers. After a series of tweets from early adopters indicated that the apostrophe and return keys were positioned too closely together, the firm dispatched design change orders quickly enough to correct the problem when the next version of the product was launched just three months later. Dell also claims to have netted millions in outlet store sales referred via the Twitter account @DellOutlet (more than 1.5 million followers).K. Eaton, “Twitter Really Works: Makes $6.5 Million in Sales for Dell,” Fast Company, December 8, 2009; J. Abel, “Dude—Dell’s Making Money off Twitter!” Wired News, June 12, 2009.
  • Brooklyn Museum patrons can pay an additional $20 a year for access to the private, members-only “1stFans” Twitter feed that shares information on special events and exclusive access to artist content.
  • Twitter is credited with having raised millions via Text-to-Donate and other fundraising as part of global disaster relief.
  • Twitter can be a boon for sharing time-sensitive information. The True Massage and Wellness Spa in San Francisco tweets last-minute cancellations to tell customers of an unexpected schedule opening. With Twitter, appointments remain booked solid. Gourmet food trucks, popular in many American cities, are also using Twitter to share location and create hipster buzz. Los Angeles’s Kogi Korean Taco Truck now has over eighty-five thousand followers and uses Twitter to reveal where it’s parked, ensuring long lines of BBQ-craving foodies. Of the firm’s success, owner Roy Choi says, “I have to give all the credit to Twitter.”A. Romano, “Now 4 Restaurant 2.0,” Newsweek, February 28, 2009.
  • Electronics retailer Best Buy has recruited over 2,300 Blue Shirt and Geek Squad staffers to crowdsource Twitter-driven inquiries via @Twelpforce, the firm’s customer service Twitter account. Best Buy staffers register their personal Twitter accounts on a separate Best Buy—run site. Then any registered employees tweeting using the #twelpforce, will automatically have those posts echoed through @Twelpforce, with the employee’s account credited at the end of the tweet. As of November 2009, Twelpforce had provided answers to over 19,500 customer inquiries.Twitter.com, “Case Study: Best Buy Twelpforce,” Twitter 101, https://twitter.com/#!/BESTBUY.

Figure 7.3 A Sampling of Tweets Filtered through Best Buy’s @Twelpforce Twitter Account

Surgeons and residents at Henry Ford Hospital have even tweeted during brain surgery (the teaching hospital sees the service as an educational tool). Some tweets are from those so young they’ve got “negative age.” Twitter.com/kickbee is an experimental fetal monitor band that sends tweets when motion is detected: “I kicked Mommy at 08:52.” And savvy hackers are embedding “tweeting” sensors into all sorts of devices. Botanicalls, for example, offers an electronic flowerpot stick that detects when plants need care and sends Twitter status updates to owners (sample post: “URGENT! Water me!”).

Organizations are well advised to monitor Twitter activity related to the firm, as it can act as a sort of canary-in-a-coal mine uncovering emerging events. Users are increasingly using the service as a way to form flash protest crowds. Amazon.com, for example, was caught off guard over a holiday weekend when thousands used Twitter to rapidly protest the firm’s reclassification of gay and lesbian books (hash tag #amazonfail). Others use the platform for shame and ridicule. BP has endured withering ridicule from the satire account @BPGlobalPR (followed by roughly 200,000 people two months after the spill).

For all the excitement, many wonder if Twitter is overhyped. Some reports suggest that many Twitter users are curious experimenters who drop the service shortly after signing up.D. Martin, “Update: Return of the Twitter Quitters,” Nielsen Wire, April 30, 2009. This raises the question of whether Twitter is a durable phenomenon or just a fad.

Pundits also wonder if revenues will ever justify its initially high valuation (by 2009 the firm was said to have been worth $1 billion; by 2011 shares trading on private secondary markets suggested a $10 billion valuation).D. Rushe, “Twitter Valued at $10bn as Google and Facebook Reportedly Vie to Buy It,” Guardian, February 10, 2011. Others wonder if rivals could usurp Twitter’s efforts with similar features. Thus far, Twitter has been following a “grow-first-harvest-later” approach.J. Murrell, “Twitter Treads Gently into Advertising Minefield,” San Jose Mercury News, April 13, 2010. The site’s rapid rise has allowed it to attract enough start-up capital to enable it to approach revenue gradually and with caution, in the hopes that it won’t alienate users with too much advertising (an approach not unlike Google’s efforts to nurture YouTube). MIT’s Technology Review reports that data sharing deals with Google and Bing may have brought in enough money to make the service profitable in 2009, but that amount was modest (just $25 million).D. Talbot, “Can Twitter Make Money?” Technology Review, March/April 2010. Twitter’s advertising platform is expected to be far more lucrative, but the firm has thus far struggled to find the right model. Reflecting Twitter’s “deliberately cautious” approach to revenue development, the ad model featuring sponsored “promoted tweets” rolled out first as part of the search, with distribution to individual Twitter feeds progressing as the firm experiments and learns what works best for users and advertisers.

Another issue—as the service grew, many Twitter users rarely visited the firm’s Web site. Instead, most active users would post and read tweets using one of many—often free—applications provided by third parties, such as Seesmic, TweetDeck, and Twhirl. This happened because Twitter made its data available for free to other developers via API (application programming interface)Programming hooks, or guidelines, published by firms that tell other programs how to get a service to perform a task such as send or receive data. For example, Amazon.com provides APIs to let developers write their own applications and Websites that can send the firm orders.. Exposing data can be a good move as it spawned an ecosystem of over one hundred thousand complementary third-party products and services that enhance Twitter’s reach and usefulness (generating network effects from complementary offerings similar to other “platforms” like Windows, iPhone, and Facebook). But there are potential downsides to such openness. If users don’t visit Twitter.com, that makes it difficult to count users, serve profiling technologies such as tracking cookies (see Chapter 14 "Google in Three Parts: Search, Online Advertising, and Beyond"), collect additional data on service use, and make money by serving ads or offering promotions on the Web site. All this creates what is known as the “free rider problemWhen others take advantage of a user or service without providing any sort of reciprocal benefit.,” where others benefit from a service while offering no value in exchange. Encouraging software and service partners to accept ads for a percentage of the cut could lessen the free rider problem.P. Kafka, “Twitter’s Ad Plan: Copy Google,” AllThingsD, February 25, 2010.

When users don’t visit a service, it makes it difficult to spread awareness of new products and features. It can also create branding challenges and customer frustration. Twitter execs lamented that customers were often confused when they searched for “Twitter” in the iPhone App Store and were presented with scores of offerings but none from Twitter itself.D. Goldman, “Twitter Grows Up: Take a Peek Inside,” CNN, April 16, 2010. Twitter’s purchase of the iPhone app Tweetie (subsequently turned into the free “Twitter for iPhone” app), its acquisition of TweetDeck, and the launch of its own URL-shortening service (limiting opportunities for bit.ly and others) signal that Twitter is willing to move into product and service niches and compete with third parties that are reliant on the Twitter ecosystem.

Twitter also got a boost when Apple deeply embedded Twitter into iOS 5. Users of the more than two hundred million Apple mobile devices gain a new one-button option to tweet photos, Web links, videos, map locations, and more. And the iOS will make Twitter easy to embed in other apps, too. Users can link a Twitter account used on their iOS devices to other apps, which means no need to log in or manually add an account each time you add an app that you’ll want to tweet from. While not directly tied to Twitter revenue, these features have the potential to encourage Twitter adoption and decrease friction for embedding a tweet button into even more applications, offering a key alliance that broadens Twitter’s distribution and utility and making it even harder for rivals to displace.

Microblogging does appear to be here to stay, and the impact of Twitter has been deep, broad, stunningly swift, and at times humbling in the power that it wields. But whether Twitter will be a durable, profit-gushing powerhouse remains to be seen. Speculation on Twitter’s future hasn’t prevented many firms from commercializing new microblogging services, and a host of companies have targeted these tools for internal corporate use. Salesforce.com’s Chatter, Socialtext Signals, and Yammer are all services that have been billed as “Twitter for the Enterprise.” Such efforts allow for Twitter-style microblogging that is restricted for participation and viewing by firm-approved accounts.

Key Takeaways

  • While many public and private microblogging services exist, Twitter remains by far the dominant service.
  • Unlike status updates found on services like Facebook and LinkedIn, Twitter’s default supports asymmetric communication, where someone can follow updates without first getting their approval. This function makes Twitter a good choice for anyone cultivating a following—authors, celebrities, organizations, and brand promoters.
  • You don’t need to tweet to get value. Many Twitter users follow friends, firms, celebrities, and thought leaders, quickly gaining access to trending topics.
  • Twitter hash tags (keywords preceded by the # character) are used to organize “tweets” on a given topic. Users can search on hash tags, and many third-party applications allow for tweets to be organized and displayed by tag.
  • Firms are leveraging Twitter in a variety of ways, including promotion, customer response, gathering feedback, and time-sensitive communication.
  • Like other forms of social media, Twitter can serve as a hothouse that attracts opinion and forces organizational transparency and accountability.
  • Activists have leveraged the service worldwide, and it has also served as an early warning mechanism in disasters, terror, and other events.
  • Despite its rapid growth and impact, significant questions remain regarding the firm’s durability, revenue prospects, and enduring appeal to initial users.
  • Sites like Twitter have made data available to third parties via an API (application programming interface). The API has helped a rich ecosystem of over seventy thousand Twitter-supporting products and services emerge. But by making data available to third parties, firms may suffer from the free rider problem where others firms benefit from a service without providing much benefit back to the sponsor itself. Twitter’s acquisitions (particularly of popular third-party clients that had used its API) have switched the firm from a platform sponsor to one that has begun to compete with other players in its ecosystem.

Questions and Exercises

  1. If you don’t already have one, set up a Twitter account and “follow” several others. Follow a diverse group—corporations, executives, pundits, or other organizations. Do you trust these account holders are who they say they are? Why? Which examples do you think use the service most effectively? Which provide the weaker examples of effective Twitter use? Why? Have you encountered Twitter “spam” or unwanted followers? What can you do to limit such experiences? Be prepared to discuss your experiences with your class.
  2. If you haven’t done so, install a popular Twitter application such as TweetDeck, Seesmic, or a Twitter client for your mobile device. Why did you select the product you chose? What advantages does your choice offer over simply using Twitter’s Web page? What challenges do these clients offer Twitter? Does the client you chose have a clear revenue model? Is it backed by a viable business?
  3. Visit search.twitter.com. Which Twitter hash tags are most active at this time? Are there other “trending topics” that aren’t associated with hash tags? What do you think of the activity in these areas? Is there legitimate, productive activity happening? Search Twitter on topics, firms, brand names, and issues of interest to you. What do you think of the quality of the information you’ve uncovered on Twitter? Who might find this to be useful?
  4. Why would someone choose to use Twitter over Facebook’s status update or other services? Which (if either) do you prefer and why?
  5. What do you think of Twitter’s revenue prospects? Is the firm a viable independent service or simply a feature to be incorporated into other social media activity? Advocate where you think the service will be in two years, five, ten. Would you invest in Twitter? Would you suggest that other firms do so? Why?
  6. Assume the role of a manager for your firm. Advocate how the organization should leverage Twitter and other forms of social media. Provide examples of effective use, and cautionary tales, to back up your recommendation.
  7. Some instructors have mandated Twitter for classroom use. Do you think this is productive? Would your professor advocate tweeting during lectures? What are the pros and cons of such use? Work with your instructor to discuss a set of common guidelines for in-class and course use of social media.
  8. As of this writing, Twitter was just rolling out advertising via “promoted tweets.” Perform some additional research. How have Twitter’s attempts to grow revenues fared? How has user growth been trending? Has the firm’s estimated value increased or decreased from the offer figures cited in this chapter? Why?
  9. What do you think of Twitter’s use of the API? What are the benefits of offering an API? What are the downsides? Would you create a company to take advantage of the Twitter API? Why or why not?
  10. Twitter’s revenue models are constantly evolving. Has the firm introduced new ways to make money since this chapter was written? Investigate its current revenue streams and estimated income, and be prepared to share and discuss with your class.
  11. Follow this book’s author at http://twitter.com/gallaugher. Tweet him if you run across interesting examples that you think would be appropriate for the next version of the book.