Weekly Update

Twitter should go private: private Twitter accounts, I mean

There’s a great deal of talk this week about Twitter’s impending $1 billion IPO. And one of the loudest stories being bandied around is that advertisers want Twitter to have a larger audience. The company’s 218 million users is simply not big enough. And the company’s rate of growth has started to slow, falling to 7% in the second quarter, short of the 10%-11% in the previous three quarters.

I am going to make a few recommendations — some of which I have made before, to no avail — that might counter the slowdown in Twitter’s growth trajectory. Some are specific to advertising, but others are simply suggestions for Twitter to move to the ‘near adjacent territory’ of its offering, in ways that would attract more users and higher engagement.

Make hashtags integral — Twitter has never really cottoned to hashtags, and the company continues to treat them as a user-generated bit of microsyntax that is largely not integrated into Twitter’s architecture or offerings. This is a real mistake. Imagine if hashtags were treated instead as first-class metadata in the system, like URLs are, so they would not take up as many characters, as a starter. Also, Twitter could be deriving advertising revenues if they woke up to the potential.

Tumblr does a much better job with its tags, creating curated feeds for many of the most popular, like ‘tech’, ‘design’, ‘fashion’, and ‘photography’. (Although Tumblr foolishly keeps all of this hidden behind its login barrier, so only registered Tumblr users can see them.)

Imagine if Twitter created curated streams for tags like ‘fashion’ and ‘photography’, and charged large sums for Prada and Canon to plaster their come-ons on the walls there. Even something as modest as a conference might be willing to pay a fee to control and curate what’s streaming out on #leweb2013 or #allthingsd.

And hashtags should be followable, in two ways: the way a user follows another, or like a list. They should be moved out of search, and into a directory.

Richer media,  rich tweets — The mechanisms that Twitter has adopted to display linked stories, images, videos and so on should be continued. Again, returning to hashtags, what if Twitters clients allowed this: if I moused over or right-clicked a hashtag in a post, it would show me to see the top five recent posts with that hashtag. And the impediment of 140 characters could be handled by simply deciding to treat what we think of as tweets today as the title, or description, of a bunch of metadata: URLs, hashtags, Retweet history, replies, etc. Also, Twitter could implement the means to add a single chunk of rich text to any tweet, indicated with an asterisk at the end. Let’s call that a rich tweet:

This is how a #richtweet might look, with an asterisk at the end over here*

The implementation would be a simple, rich text editing tool. The obligatory title would become the tweet, and with the rich body it would be something like a blog post. Indeed, Twitter might be well served to implement additional blog-like functionality, like an RSS feed, themes (like Tumblr), and an obvious URL convention so that people could see a user’s rich tweets, like www.twitter.com/stoweboyd/rich.

Rich tweets would be a strong counter to Google+, Blogger, and Tumblr, and I am certain this would increase engagement.

Private Twitter — Twitter is one large namespace, with everything defaulting to the open follower model. And that is a wonderful thing. However, sometimes people want to communicate behind closed doors, and the only mechanism for doing that in Twitter is direct messaging, a feature that is extremely limited and not very Twitter like. DMs are one-to-one communications only, and don’t ‘feel’ like streams as a result. (Twitter should implement group private messaging, for a monthly fee, too.)

I propose that Twitter consider the implementation of private twitter domains, which would be either for-fee or advertiser-supported. The functionality would allow a business, for example, to use a twitter subdomain — like adjectivenoun.twitter.com — to which users would have to be invited, or perhaps gain access by confirmation of a company email address (stoweboyd@adjectivenoun.com, for example).

Note that by default, every user would discover (on the day they turned the service on) that they possessed a private twitter subdomain — like stoweboyd.twitter.com — based on their existing user Twitter handle. They could opt not to do anything with it, or to start using it.

The owner of the account would be able to invite others to join, or turn on company email address verification. Once logged in, users would be able to connect and communicate with other co-workers using the standard open follower model, use and follow hashtags (as discussed above), and best yet, create project- or group-oriented contexts that could be private to those invited. This would allow Twitter to compete in the enterprise social network market, where it already has a toehold.

Most businesses would opt for a for-fee use, since that would give them administrative controls. But small businesses, non-profits, and freelancers might decide to simply see ads streaming by occasionally, or plastered on the walls of their streams.

(There are also immediate opportunities for the cross-communication of private and open Twitter, too complex to develop here, but that would represent an area for other marketing and customer-facing services, as well.)

Twitter as a platform — If in fact Twitter undertook the private domain route as described above, another interesting angle could arise to make money for Twitter. They could create an app store, so that files of various types could be associated with applications that users could ‘download’ into their private domains. So, if the administrator of adjectivenoun.twitter.com wanted to use a particular tool for shared whiteboards, he could so stipulate. And then, whenever company members created a shared whiteboard, and posted the link in a Tweet, others could click on the link to open it in the same shared whiteboard tool.

And, as before, some of the tool vendors might opt for an advertising approach, so YouTube-style ads might run along the bottom of the shared whiteboard app for some length of time, or the folks at AdjectiveNoun might opt to pay a small monthly fee to see the ads go away.

I may have gone on too long, but the point is clear. Twitter has a big upside potential for advertising-in-the-open associated with hashtags, which to date they have not exploited well.  But I think there is just as large an opportunity in private Twitter, both for ad-supported and for-fee private Twitter accounts, if they have the desire and vision to pursue it.