Twitter: Building a business-critical tool, then breaking it

I remember four years ago, when Twitter was still a blossoming new service, the outages that they used to suffer. Within just a few weeks of joining, I realised what a great tool it was and how important it was to me. Like many others who endured ongoing disruptions to Twitter’s service, I publicly stated I was willing to pay. Indeed, people were begging Twitter to let us give them money, to have some sort of way of paying for a service we had so quickly learnt to love. Twitter, inexplicably, pooh-poohed the idea, much to our frustration.

Over the last four years I have watched Twitter grow and fail to find any sort of business model that you could hang a hat on. Unlike Flickr, or Viddler, or Dipity, or WordPress, or LinkedIn, or countless other services, I can’t choose to give Twitter my money through subscribing to a premium account. For four years, Twitter have failed to earn any money from me, despite my willingness to pay.

i still have no idea what Twitter’s real business model is. Promoted Tweets and trends seem like a weak and risky ad-based model. I had thought they were going to let the ecosystem grow some awesome apps, add-ons and clients, buy the best, and then use sales of that as one income stream, but instead they bought Tweetie and then killed it dead.

For a while I thought they’d spot the popularity of services like TwitPic or TwitVid and build a premium offering around media sharing. Or maybe they were going to archive the world’s Tweets and use them in some clever way to research market demographics or something. But no. Not only have they trashed their archive, their search is useless.

And now they are slowly killing off the very developer community that made them great – indeed, made them at all usable – in the first place. Many have written about Twitter’s Ryan Sarver telling developers not to bother working on new clients already, so I shan’t dig further here. But it’s another nail in the coffin for all the goodwill and love that had built up around Twitter.

Whether deliberately or by accident, Twitter has created a service that people, businesses, NGOs, governments and grassroots groups now need in order to communicate with their constituencies. And many organisations, and many different types of organisation, rely on Twitter in one way or another. They also rely on a number of 3rd party services to help them understand how well they are doing, and what they are doing, on Twitter.

But Twitter’s rate limits – which stop 3rd party apps from abusing their API – are now starting to affect the use of Twitter as a serious communications tool. I am in the process of writing a research report, and yesterday I wanted to do a bit of research into the usage of Twitter by some well-known organisations. One of the tools I was using was Twitalyzer, and I came across this error:

Twitter is refusing to process any more of our requests right now! Twitter imposes certain rate limits on all partner applications and we have hit one of those limits.

Now, when I check, I get this message too:

The Twitter Search API appears to be largely OFFLINE today. On Friday, March 18th we started seeing a dramatically elevated rate of search-related errors during our processing. We are talking with Twitter but have not found resolution yet. All accounts and account processing appears to be affected. We are doing everything we can to resolve this issue but for now it appears out of our hands.

Now, it’s one thing to get errors like that if you’re doing an ego search, but if you’re using Twitter for professional purposes you need it to be up and running all the time, and that means that up and running for 3rd party tools as well as for Twitter.com. That means having an API that is reliable, that people can depend on not to die or get rate-limited into oblivion.

It’s not just Twitalyzer that’s having problems. Tweetstats had problem with a massive queue (which I guess is their way of getting round the rate limiting), and Kevin has reported problems with Nambu, a desktop client. Slowly, it seems, Twitter is killing off its ecosystem with API changes, rate limiting, poorly developed clients/apps, annoying new features (the ‘dickbar’) and restrictive API policies. Whether this is deliberate or not, I wouldn’t like to say. But it is shortsighted.

There is still an opportunity for a premium Twitter account, one that I and, I am sure, many businesses would happily fork out decent cash for. A Twitter account that guaranteed me reliable service, some way of ensuring that I don’t get rate-limited when using 3rd party apps, and perhaps even some additional premium services that I haven’t dreamt up yet. That, yes, I would still pay for.

Now, you might say that Twitter is caught between a rock and a hard place: They don’t have the scale of Facebook, and they don’t have the income streams either. With no credible business model, further scaling could be difficult, and investors may be militating for some sort of return by any means possible. This could be pushing them into shortsighted strategies to scrape some dosh in any way they can. Now that’s speculation, of course, but I’m still struggling to make any sense out of what they actually are doing, or see how it translates into a decent business model.

Certainly, I have to think that Twitter are playing a dangerous game with their users’ goodwill. People keep saying that they have lock-in because there’s no credible competition, but where is Friendster now? Or MySpace? Yeah, they still exist, but as shadows of their former selves.

Twitter can’t take their users for granted, because they can and will go elsewhere. Twitter have made a phenomenal tool, one that both businesses and individuals find useful enough to want to pay for, yet bit by bit they are breaking it. Not big. Not clever. And not a strategy for long term business sustainability.

4 thoughts on “Twitter: Building a business-critical tool, then breaking it

  1. Great article. Twitter has had me scratching my head for some time now and I’ve noticed how much slower my desktop client has been lately. It’s pretty annoying, especially when you are trying to track how people are reacting to a new product offering or change to your site. They need to get themselves together!

  2. You make a good point about Twitter’s lack of a sustainable business model and self-centred approach to the developer community. But, frankly, any organisation which, through accident or design, has found itself relying on Twitter for any significant purpose is incompetent. And I don’t have a lot of sympathy with incompetence.

    Twitter is a toy; it’s a fun toy, it’s useful for self-promotion and, when it’s running, can be a surprisingly effective provider of news and information as well as a handy way of communicating with friends. But to build a business model or professional service around using Twitter, when it’s clear that there isn’t even a sustainable model which guarantees the continued existence of Twitter, is foolish in the extreme.

  3. What makes most sense in a business context? Ignoring a massively useful and popular tool whilst your competitors use it to trounce you, or engaging with it and hoping it doesn’t just go away one day? By your logic, no business should ever engage with any tool, but that’s not how the world works, I’m afraid.

    The point is, Twitter has made a tool which has become business critical – business are using it for customer care, customer relations, promotion, gathering feedback, understanding public response, and all sorts of other things. The businesses which sit back and watch are going to be losing out, and losing ground to their competitors. So having created this tool which businesses love, Twitter should be able to monetise it, and they haven’t. That’s their failing.

    As for Twitter being a fun toy, yeah, for some people it is a fun toy. For businesses, it can be a valuable tool. Elsewhere, it’s a communications tools that saves lives:

    http://techcrunch.com/2008/04/16/twitter-saves-man-from-egyptian-justice/

    And which is important enough for the US State Department to take notice:

    http://www.nbr.co.nz/article/twitter-answers-obama-plea-delays-shutdown-iranians-sake-103851

    Building a business model or service around Twitter when Twitter has no sustainable business model that we know of is risky, yes. Using Twitter as part of your business comms is taking no more of a risk than your competitors are taking — if it goes away for you, it goes away for them too.

    But to dismiss Twitter as a fun toy is to fail to understand that context changes usage, and not everyone lives in your context.

    Having accidentally created an important piece of infrastructure, Twitter now need to figure out how to make it pay. They ignore business and premium personal accounts at their peril, imho.

  4. I wonder if the ‘keep it free at all costs’ model has become as much an ideological as practical aim for Twitter. People seem to be afraid that creating a paid-for service means they’re selling in out in some indefinable way. So long as you are offering something that is value for money – like the premium Flickr service – then this shouldn’t be an issue.

    Like you, I would happily pay for a service that would help me organise and manage my tweet stream across multiple devices in an intuitive, useful and speedy way. With two accounts and multiple conversations often happening at any one time, it’s impossible to use the Twitter website. I need a good client for this. Would I pay for one? Hell yes.

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