Revisiting (and rethinking) the Twitter “Pay to Listen” business model

Personally, I thought Charlie was spot on when he said that Sermo’s “Pay to Listen” business model might be the answer for Twitter and similar services.

This was before the acquisition of Summize, which Allen thought was a short-sighted move.

When Summize presented at the NY Tech meetup, they spoke about very large aspirations to track the real-time conversational Web, not just Twitter. If Twitter acquires the service, that goes bye-bye.

As I said in comments, this makes more sense if “their monetization strategy is with analytics and reporting as Charlie has suggested in the past. In that case, Summize's technology is more than just a fix for the search and replies - it's the engine by which Twitter can make their money.”

Recent chaos allegedly caused by the the new Twitter anti-spam bot gives me even more reason to suspect that this is the model.

First, let me start off by saying that I don’t really see spam as a problem with Twitter. In fact, that’s the whole point of the followers model (which of course may be part of the reason they’ve had scaling issues) - spam bots may follow me, but that just means they can listen to me. They can’t send me direct messages and I don’t see their broadcast messages. If they flood me with @tmarman messages, it might get annoying but then I can block them.

So maybe, this isn’t really just an anti-spam bot. As Sarah went on to discuss in that RWW article, some of the most affected people here are those using Twitter for customer service.

[M]any companies are using Twitter for customer service, meaning that they will be following people at higher rates than regular Twitter users due to the fact that they follow back those that follow them. This is certainly a legitimate way to use the service and one that should not be punished through a blind algorithm that can't distinguish a community manager from a spammer.

Twitter is most valuable (in terms of being willing to pay) to companies – Comcast can (and likely would) pay more than all of the super users combined; if you charged Scoble, he would just go elsewhere. Spammers and community managers do characteristics in that they both follow a large number of users, but in both cases some of their value is stunted by not being able to communicate back (whether spam or something valuable).

While I still think there’s plenty of money in a richer analytics tool, maybe the model isn’t so much “paying to listen” but “paying to participate”.

As it stands today, the two primary ways of targeting a response is by sending a direct message or sending a reply (which shows up in search and in the Replies tab). Direct messages can only be sent to those who follow you, replies are delivered regardless.

Now imagine a scenario where the latter was blocked based on the nature of the account and its ratio. (I think ratio is a better model here than pure numbers, because it captures implicitly some of this value equation). If you want to deliver a message to this particular user, you will have to either upgrade to a premium service or pay $0.25 delivery charge.

There’s even a scenario where these premium users could pay to deliver direct messages even if the recipient is not following them – though Twitter would obviously need to tread lightly there or else it could have a real spam problem.

What do you think? Is Twitter better off charging for usage beyond a certain point, or is a pay-to-listen or pay-to-participate model better? Should restrictions be done on the nature of the account (i.e., there’s a difference between @ComcastCares and @Zappos), tied to the absolute numbers a user follows, or tied to their ratio in some way? Or perhaps a combination of all of these factors to dictate price?

Published Sunday, July 27, 2008 12:46 PM by Tim Marman
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