Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Can Twitter Ever Make Money?

There's an article this morning in Wired sounding a familiar theme: Twitter has decided that money is a problem for another day:

Twitter's Business Model? Well, Ummmm...
The article doesn't grab your attention from the outset. Yes, we know that Twitter will probably try to put ads on the service. Yes, we know that this risks pissing off users and driving them away. If you follow the Internet scene at all, you probably could have written that section of the article yourself.

Towards the close there are a few mildly interesting revenue possibilities. The first is to take a page from Google's book and ad contextual ads to a Twitter search function. No doubt the success of such a feature would depend on the volume of Twitter search, not to mention the likelihood that anyone would (to use the example from the article) go to Twitter (of all places) to search on "iPhone." Call me skeptical, but do iPhone customers not have better places to search for product information?

The second possibility is getting corporations to pay for access to their customers via Twitter. One problem here: first, you're asking companies to pay for something that everyone else gets for free. That might be a tough sell. I suspect, though, that the bigger difficulty is that corporate paid access would spoil the experience. I read blogs for baseball news. I know of a couple baseball blogs on local newspaper sites, written by trained reporters; I don't read them. I prefer amateur blogs because they are amateur: they provide unfiltered communication between fans of the game. Making it professional diminishes its appeal. The same could be true of Twitter: it's only cool to follow someone at Dell or General Motors if the tweets seem unofficial and off-the-cuff. Turn Twitter into a mechanism for traditional customer service, or -- worse -- corporate press releases, and it won't seem cool anymore.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the possibility that Twitter never will make money, because one of the things people like about it is that it's free and non-monetized. Whenever Twitter gets around to introducing ads into the mix, no doubt there will be several competing services that remain ad-free. If it turns out that money is antithetical to the spirit that drives web services like Twitter, the money game will be impossible to win.