Twitter and Square use presidential campaigns to find relevancy

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Twitter has partnered with Square, the payment processor with which it at least temporarily shares a chief executive, to make it easier for politicians to raise money via the social network.

This new feature could help Twitter figure out how it can be useful to normal people. The service is weird, and while its existing users might prefer it to stay that way, it has been trying everything to stay relevant, whether it’s dabbling in music discovery or copying Facebook or expanding its news-related features. Now it’s turning to payments — and politics — to help realize that same goal.

The service works by including a candidate’s unique “cashtag” — the identifier Square uses for its Cash service — in a tweet. Twitter will then display a “contribute” button with that tweet. Clicking that button will prompt users to share their credit card info, along with other data, then process the donation.

A spokesperson said that Twitter briefed “every campaign” before it revealed this service to the public. About a dozen candidates have signed up for the service, and several — Rand Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Rick Santorum, among others — have already used it to ask their followers to support their presidential campaigns.

A screenshot of Twitter's new campaign donation feature.

A screenshot of Twitter’s new campaign donation feature.

Neither Twitter nor Square are strangers to working in politics. Twitter has experimented with features that remind people about coming elections or make it easier for candidates to gather data about their supporters, and Square often trumpets its popularity as a donations tool during the presidential race of 2012.

But this feature might be a sign of greater things to come — (and no, I’m not using that to transition into discussing Jack Dorsey and whether or not he’ll be Twitter’s next chief executive). That horse has been beaten past death, and I don’t want to join in. I’m striking another dead horse: the rise of social commerce.

Yes, I know. People have been talking about buying things on Twitter or Facebook or Pinterest for years. Yet it’s worth noting that this announcement comes just a day after Stripe announced a new tool, Relay, that will make it easier for retailers to include “buy” buttons on services like Twitter.

Sure, other social commerce tools have failed. Remember when Amazon wanted people to add items to their shopping carts by tweeting links with the #AmazonCart hashtag? I doubt that was ever as popular as Amazon might have liked. But things like Relay show that interest in social commerce remains piqued.

The partnership between Twitter and Square also provides an interesting look at how nontraditional commerce might work for tech companies. I mean, presidential campaigns aren’t run every year, but there are plenty of other political events that could convince politicians to use Twitter to help fill their coffers.

Square’s benefit from this feature is obvious. The company takes a 1.9 percent processing fee from each donation. If this becomes popular, and encourages Twitter users to make small donations they might never have made if they had to mail a physical check, Square could benefit from processing all those contributions.

Twitter gets something else out of the deal: relevancy. One of the service’s biggest problems — aside from the fact that many of its users seem hellbent on harassing spewing intellectual bile onto anyone they encounter — is that many people don’t find it useful. Getting more involved in politics can change that.

Normal people will be happy because they can feel like they’re making a change with minimal effort. Politicians will be happy because they might be able to get some more money, while engaging that all-important millennial population. And Twitter will be happy because people are giving its service a purpose.

It’s too bad they’ll have to learn the word “cashtag” to do it.

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