Can Twitter Build Something Worth Paying For?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In its latest earnings call, Twitter Inc. announced that it was building a subscription-based service. But it revealed little else. So we asked Bloomberg Opinion’s columnists to come up with some ideas that could actually work. Here’s what they said.
Substack for Twitter
A Twitter subscription model faces an interesting test as parts of the media and entertainment industry seem destined to move back toward predominantly advertising-supported platforms. Consumers tend to be more open to paying an automatic, recurring monthly fee to receive something tangible — meals, workout classes, clothing, razors, beauty products. We’re quite sensitive to the price we pay for things we simply watch or scroll, such as streaming-TV apps and social media, especially given that we often rely on multiple streaming and social media services rather than just one. But one subscription model that Twitter could explore is the idea of users paying for exclusive premium content and ideas.
Substack jumps to mind. It’s an email-newsletter publishing service in which the newsletter author can charge a subscription fee to readers, with Substack taking a cut. These days, a journalist’s complete body of work tends to include Twitter. It’s not just posts containing articles that link back to a news site, but also threads of thought and insights that live within Twitter, including dialogues with other writers, experts and readers that anyone can see (unless the account is private).
Newsrooms could wall off exclusive video content and breaking-news feeds, creating a new source of revenue and solving the problem of a scoop breaching a news site’s paywall and making its way into the broader Twitter universe before the publisher’s paying subscribers get a first look. A big risk, of course, is a Twitter subscription undermining a news site subscription, and the challenge is determining what content a Twitter subscriber would even be willing to pay to access. But the news industry gives away a ton for free on Twitter, and not without reason: It builds reach and a following. Maybe that’s an opportunity. — Tara Lachapelle
A Twitter Star’s 3-Tiered Plan
Back in 2016, Darren Rovell, the former ESPN reporter who’s been on Twitter since 2009 and has more than 2 million followers, wrote an article with the headline “My $4.5 Billion Gift To Twitter.” That’s how much he calculated the company would make if it employed the subscription model he laid out. Four years later, I still haven’t seen a better model, so rather than come up with my own, I’m going to steal his. Don’t worry: He won’t mind. He really wants this to happen.
Here’s his model:
- Anyone who doesn’t want to pay doesn’t have to. For them, Twitter stays the same.
- People willing to pay $1 a month get to prioritize their feed: by topic, chronology, followers, etc. They also get a mobile TweetDeck, which is something power users have long yearned for.
- For $5 a month, users get all of the above, plus priority access to Twitter’s new features as they roll out. “You also get a newly built Twitter Heat Map, which gives you access to a column that allows you to see the fastest retweeted and liked tweets on the platform in real time,” writes Rovell.
- For $10 a month, Rovell would throw in Identity Verification Services (blue checkmark on day of signing up), as well as the ability to sell products and services with a “Buy Now” button.
Me, I would also eliminate ads for people willing to pay that much. But I’m not the expert. — Joe Nocera
A Brand-Building Engine
My company, a wealth-management firm, has successfully used Twitter to build brand and name recognition. We would pay Twitter for a service that would show us how to do that commercialization better — bigger, faster, more efficiently. Relatedly, Facebook Inc. has successfully come up with ways for advertisers to achieve better results; Twitter should do something similar if they want to capture more revenue from businesses. And while ads and sponsored content on Twitter have yet to interfere with my enjoyment of the platform, I expect that we are all going to see more of them. Hardcore users would probably be willing to pay a premium — $5, $10 a month? — for an ad-free experience.
Of course, Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey’s real job is running Square Inc. As NYU Stern School of Business professor Scott Galloway has so eloquently argued, all Twitter really needs is a full-time CEO. Maybe that person would have better ideas to grow and monetize the user base. — Barry Ritholtz
An Easier, More Searchable Twitter
The biggest mistake Twitter could make is to put up barriers that would lead to a loss of users. High rollers won’t take too kindly to losing thousands of followers due to a perceived Twitter cash grab, and they might devote their attention to other platforms. Additionally, ask any app developer and they’ll tell you that getting customers to pay for something that was previously free is a surefire way to lose customers.
Instead, Twitter can get away with offering a paid tier by filling in the plentiful holes that currently exist in its product. Searching on Twitter’s mobile app is a horrendously difficult task — one that should be easy. There are thousands of users who would pay a few bucks per month to easily find that covfefe tweet by @realDonaldTrump or @elonmusk’s post about 420. Twitter search should be able to tell you how many times @jk_rowling has referenced transgender people or which followers @BarackObama has interacted with. Users would spend even more money to be able to access an archive of deleted tweets — a service available elsewhere for politicians, businesses and other VIPs.
Once Twitter gets search sorted, then it can start making the case for even more ambitious premium offerings. — Tim Culpan
Crowdfunding a Democratized Discourse
Too many politicians and other bad actors exploit Twitter as a bully pulpit or a hate machine, but it’s still the curious person’s social media. Any subscription product that lowers the volume of serendipity will hurt the platform. The key is to use Twitter’s strengths to drive revenue.
Earlier this year, Oxford University Press published a study inspired by a debate on Twitter. Unfortunately, the debaters themselves — and the people following them — couldn’t read it without paying $35. Therein lies an opportunity. One way to monetize Twitter may be to give niche media and academic publishers an opportunity to make tiny sums on paywalled content from a large number of users, their curiosity stirred by others on the network.
Such a system could also enable journalism startups, with small payments for one investigation or feature helping to finance the next. Could it also help support female scientists and researchers from lesser-known institutions who are now struggling to sustain themselves? Giving only paying customers a hate-free, bot-free experience is too morally dubious to count as a real business. Crowdfunding a more democratized discourse might be a better model. — Andy Mukherjee
A More Curated, Polished Twitter
As a social media editor, I get paid to use Twitter for a living. In order to get the most out of the platform, I use a whole host of applications, ranging from TweetDeck to SocialFlow to CrowdTangle. Through this ragtag band of browser tabs, I can see the potential of Twitter as a one-stop shop for news and so many other interests.
As it stands, Twitter is messy. Every hundredth scroll or so, you’ll find a tweet along the lines of: “This site is garbage, why am I even on here?” Social media addiction is real, but so is the longing for a higher-quality, more comprehensive experience, even if it costs $10 a month.
Twitter’s trend-tracking module is no way to find out what's going on in the news. But the most-tweeted links of the people or lists you follow would be an excellent way to do so. Why isn't that a tab in Twitter? Why can't I receive such links wherever I'd like them delivered — email, push notification or in-app alert? And why can't I look back a week from now for everything ever said on Twitter about an article?
A few more improvements worth paying for: Twitter often leaves users disconnected from the intent of the initial storyline. Along with every viral tweet, there should be an easy-to-navigate linear timeline of tweets surrounding that discussion. And to reduce the confusion surrounding tweets that lack context, Twitter could also enhance its newly updated “Retweets and Comments” so that users can toggle between the top-engaged quote-tweets and most-followed retweeters, as well as a linear list of both categories. People are looking for the entire story, and Twitter just needs to make it easier to locate. And what about a dashboard that lets users track the velocity of not only their own tweets, but also the tweets of other sources in real time, beyond Top Tweets and Latest Tweets? According to Twitter, “Top Tweets are ones you are likely to care about most.” It sounds vague because it is. — Jessica Karl
Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off
I’ve got some bad news for those at Twitter who are excited about developing a subscription product: Now is not the time.
Jack Dorsey rightly says the company will have to offer a “really high bar” of value before asking consumers to pay for a product. The main problem is many of the obvious subscription ideas risk fragmenting the platform’s user base — one of the key attributes of the service. Moreover, as a longtime power user, I’m hard-pressed to imagine paying for anything Twitter may offer.
Instead, the company should focus on improving its core advertising business. Developing an advanced, transaction-oriented ad platform for large and small businesses would make a much bigger impact on Twitter’s revenue than any conceivable premium product. Facebook’s so-called “direct response” ads generate roughly 25 times more sales than Twitter — all while somehow maintaining a service for over a billion users that is mostly free of charge. — Tae Kim
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mike Nizza is an editor for Bloomberg View. He was the executive editor of BloombergPolitics.com, as well as an editor at Esquire Digital, News Corp.'s the Daily, the Atlantic Media Co.'s Innovation Center and the New York Times.
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