On Twitter and the missed opportunity to execute a social utility business model

Bernard Lunn has written a good post on the (lack of) a social media business model. He writes about the difficulties for social networks to monetize using advertisement. Although he builds his storyline a bit different from me, he is saying a lot of things I believe too. A few days ago I wrote about the same subject in a post called “Advertisement holds web 2.0 in a death grip”. A nice quote from Bernard’s post:

If social media is not funded by advertising, it must be funded by subscriptions or transactions. Neither is easy.

Social media is fundamentally different – it is few to few, not one to one like telephone or one to many like traditional media. There is also a fundamental problem for advertisers. We are focused on communicating with each other, not looking at content with some hopefully relatively relevant ads attached. Any advertising in that context is an annoying interruption, unless we learn to tune out the ads so effectively that it becomes useless to advertisers.

Bernard analyzes what three major social networking sites could do. They all have 2 options, remain a walled garden, or open up and become a utility. Both paths, or fork in a road as he calls it, could lead to value creation. But if a social network remains closed it will become a niche. Bernard’s preference (as is mine):

The mass-market utility model will win out in the end for 3 reasons:

  1. The social graph is so closely linked to communications, which has always been a utility model.
  2. The ownership issues around the social graph are murky. A utility skates past that problem, saying “you own, we manage.” AT&T does not own your Rolodex, or insert ads when you are calling Mom because they own your connection to Mom.
  3. The social graph has to be monetized in creative ways and the best way to make that happen is make it available to all the entrepreneurs and established businesses, on clear and simple terms.

I believe that Bernard nails it. Social interaction is something of all times. It is the most vital element of our on-line experience. Content creation and consumption isn’t nearly as interesting if there isn’t interaction. The interaction itself shouldn’t be supported by advertisement. Advertisement trespasses when I’m having interaction with my friends. I once, jokingly, said I started a countdown for the downfall of Facebook.  The reason for this countdown is that they are executing a wrong business model. They aren’t near that downfall yet, but if they choose to remain closed then the slow decline as Bernard also calls it will happen. They just don’t own enough of the Internet to make that work. They have a walled garden of 100M users, Google works on a walled garden of the entire Web population. They are different measures.

We have seen already one example of a very successful social interaction utility. Unfortunately this example is not a great example for a successful utility business model. It’s Twitter of course! Twitter has commoditised the 140 char message more effectively than anyone could ever dream of. It has the capability to become mainstream due to its addictiveness, interactiveness, fun. But it also has serious operational problems (which I don’t want to emphasize, they are really hard working on it and I wish them all the best). But to me Twitter is also the example of a missed opportunity for a social utility business model.

Twitter should have taken its popularity and become a social utility service other social networks could implement. By doing that they would not only have become the standard for short social communication messages in any social network, but they would also be able to execute an Amazon-S3 type of business model. There would also be opportunities to charge users for the utility they use. Maybe not in the web domain (although I could see premium and freemium services appear), but definitely in the mobile domain. That is where the growth of Twitter should lie. That is where the money is! And if they can think of a way to stop cluttering the inbox of a GSM, then they could make the crossover to mobile and become one of the most successful paid mobile services. They have taken the immense popular SMS (100 BLN revenues in 2007), and socialized it using the Twitter service. An incredible opportunity, missed by a long shot.

I sure hope that the utility model thinking will gain momentum in VC land. I also hope Twitter will make a turnaround in terms of operations and business model. I would hate to lose that service. I want it to become successful as a social utility business model. It will help us create the User Centric Web.

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8 Responses to On Twitter and the missed opportunity to execute a social utility business model

  1. Frederic says:

    Some interesting thoughts – as usual. I fully agree that Twitter’s future as a business has to be in the mobile space.

    I can’t see a way how they could create a large enough revenue stream on the web without alienating their user base (and they are alienating their users already be being down half of the time anyway).

    While they have missed that boat so far (and part of that might have just been the inertia from how users started using Twitter, btw) – I do think that they still have a reasonable chance of getting into a mobile business model like the one you outlined here.

  2. Daniel says:

    Can we take this thought to the next step? What would the revenue model for Twitter as a “successful social interaction utility” look like?

    Would I be charged 5 cents per tweet I send? Would that even cover the SMS fees Twitter is paying to send out SMS twitters internationally?

    Alternatively, Twitter is that they could charge brands for being on twitter?

    But in any case, I’m sure a closure of a company like twitter will only formally announce the end of Web 2.0, so I hope they find their way.

  3. Bob says:

    Twitter has missed the boat, so far. But, lets remember that it’s brand new and hardly a mainstream technology. None of the non-techie’s I know have even heard of it. Heck, even some of the techie’s I know haven’t.

    My point is that it’s still early & there’s time for them to catch up, once they’ve stabilized the technology.

  4. @Bob you may be right. But I have always felt that when you start something you should already have a possible view of a business plan. It might change over time as you get to know the users, and you get a grip on the value of the service, but there should be a starting point. Maybe there is one with twitter, but it isn’t clear to me what that is. And Twitter isn’t mainstream (god forbid given the state right now), but it has the potential to become mainstream, more than any other interaction service that I know of. I still think they should explore the Amazon-type business plan, and the possibility to charge for mobile to web.
    @Daniel, would you pay say $30 cts for sending a mobile tweet to the web? Would you be willing to pay a few bucks to receive them on your mobile? Would you be willing to pay for group-SMS using the Twitter backbone and a group of Twitter friends? There are lots of opportunities in a world where everyone is used to paying for communication.

  5. Robin Cannon says:

    “But I have always felt that when you start something you should already have a possible view of a business plan.”

    …and I wonder if that’s the crux of a lot of social networking’s problem in terms of monetisation and long term sustainability.

    We hear a lot of the stories of these apps, like Facebook, being developed initially as services for friends, or as university projects or whatever. Many of them see to not even expect to reach the size they do, or (as Twitter have admitted) find their service being used in ways they didn’t originally envisage. They aren’t developed with a worthwhile business plan, but often…seemingly…a hope and a prayer.

    I’ll also answer the question you asked Daniel – no…not particularly. You see I think we’re moving towards a world where people are increasingly resentful of paying for basic communication. Or they’re looking at best at a standard monthly charge that extends to unlimited usage. So a pay-per-tweet model wouldn’t be popular or sustainable at my guess.

  6. @Robin, the trend is that communication costs are going down. But unless we get to a point where mobile communication is fully sponsored by advertisement, I don’t see how these costs are dropping to 0. So that is why I believe there is still room for a pay-per-tweet model, as long as the tweet moves from the mobile space into the web and vice versa.

  7. In Singapore there is a technology called Zapcode (http://zapcode.com.sg). It’s plastered over parts of the island and many portions of the national newspaper. You point your camera phone at it, and moments later you get a discount coupon from the merchant who has leased the particular zapcode.

    I could be sitting at a bar and be zapped down (with my permission) a coupon for Heineken – even though I am interacting with my friend.

    So it’s within the realm of possibility to monetize the new web of mobile interactions without necessarily burdening the user.

    From a technology perspective we need to replace our current InBox with an InteractionBox – terse, actionable messages. And beyond 1-to-1, we also need to facilitate few-to-few, i.e. small groups communications.

    But for monetization to happen something like zapcode sure looks interesting.

  8. Pingback: Is Twitter the best Web 2.0 concept ever devised? | OutThink

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