Of all the times to launch into the Twitter ecosystem — with developers quaking from last week’s revelation that Twitter would compete with them head-on, and Twitter expected to launch a monetization platform at its own conference this week — the legendary entrepreneur Bill Gross is tonight announcing his new company TweetUp.
TweetUp aims to identify relevant tweets and tweeters based on popularity, engagement, interest and also paid bidding on keywords. Though Gross has created many companies over the years through his incubator Idealab, and most recently has been focused on solar energy, TweetUp most closely resembles his great insight of the late ’90s: GoTo.com — which became Overture (s YHOO), aka search advertising, aka Google’s (s GOOG) core business. TweetUp is similarly a contextual advertising system for the new web-technology-seeking-a-business model on the block, Twitter. The difference is, Gross wants to monetize the content itself, by getting publishers to pay to reach a relevant audience.
The best thing about Gross’ idea is it comes with built-in distribution and monetization. I’ve seen a bunch of really cool innovations on real-time search lately, but these startups tend to focus on the algorithm rather than the way they will matter to users. Sure, nobody’s using the TweetUp marketplace yet, but at least it has a business model.
In order to identify top tweets, TweetUp uses signals such as a Twitter user’s ratio of retweets to followers and how much they’ve previously tweeted about similar topics, but it also adds in the ability to promote your tweet or your profile by paying something like 5 cents to $1 to bid on a term. Then it builds tweets into an ad unit that other publishers can run, giving them real-time, relevant content in a widget in their sidebar, as well as 50 percent of the revenue. Publishers can also opt-in to a keyword rollover feature similar to Kontera’s that pops up a window with a few relevant Tweets when you mouse over a link in the text of an article.
Gross sees it as a way to give relevant tweets more staying power, and to help interesting Twitter users find more followers who are interested in their areas of expertise. He built the company after being frustrated that his own personal tweets from events like Davos and the TED Conference were drowned out. Gross, for all his stature and access to elite events, has fewer than 1,500 followers.
The hard part for Tweetup will be building an ecosystem of participation. And Gross knows this — GoTo was a tough sell, too. “This is not going to be an overnight business,” he told us. “It’s going to be an evangelism sell.” To kick it off, he’s offering the equivalent of $100 in TweetUp money to the first 1,000 users. Once the system is populated, TweetUp ad units will go live sometime in the next month. Participating clients and publishers include Seesmic, Twidroid, TwitterFeed, Klout, Business Insider, Answers.com and PopURLS.
I do think Gross has a point: your content doesn’t matter unless people read it, and in the modern media age, where everyone’s a publisher, audiences are harder to come by. You’ve got to work. But as a writer, it feels awfully weird to fork over money to get people to read my tweets and hopefully click through to my stories. Gross’ reply: “If you can pay a lower CPM than you can get [on your web page] yourself to drive traffic, then you will pay.”
TweetUp is not without competition; for instance, OneRiot just began offering a self-service system that publishers can use to promote their recent content on its real-time search engine and on Twitter clients. And of course, Twitter has a few ideas up its own sleeve as well.
Gross is serving as TweetUp’s CEO, and the Pasadena, Calif.-based company already has 10 employees. It has raised funding from Index Ventures, Betaworks, Steve Case’s Revolution, First Round Capital, Jason Calacanis and Jeff Jarvis.
Gross, by the way, will be speaking about his other passion, alternative energy, at GigaOM’s Green:Net conference later this month, put on by our sister site Earth2Tech. Gross was until recently the CEO of eSolar, which is using software to lower the cost of solar and produce it at a utility scale. You can buy tickets to Green:Net here.