Friday, May. 29, 2009

The Future of Twitter

Microblogging platform Twitter has 32 million users, an increase from about 2 million a year ago, according to research mentioned in the Wall Street Journal. Some Internet measurement services show that figure increasing 50% to 100% month over month. While it is not clear that Twitter will become as large as social networks MySpace and Facebook or video-sharing site YouTube, the company could certainly have 50 million visitors by the end of the year.

Because Twitter can be used with ease on both PCs and mobile devices, and because it limits users to very short messages of 140 characters or fewer, it has become one of the largest platforms in the world for sharing real-time data. A number of large businesses and celebrities have hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter. This includes personalities like Oprah and Ashton Kutcher. JetBlue (JBLU), Whole Foods (WFMI) and Dell (DELL), along with other multinational corporations, are among the most followed names on the service. (See the top 10 celebrity Twitter feeds.)

As Twitter grows, it will increasingly become a place where companies build brands, do research, send information to customers, conduct e-commerce and create communities for their users. Some industries, like local retail, could be transformed by Twitter — both at one-store operations that cater to customers within a few blocks of their locations and at the individual stores of giant retail operations like Wal-Mart (WMT). In either case, having the opportunity to tell customers about attractive sales and new products can be done at remarkably low cost while providing for greater geographic accuracy.

For Twitter to be a part of a company's efforts to communicate with customers, the customers must be willing to "follow" the company on Twitter. That allows the individual consumer to choose which firms he is willing to get messages directly from. It may not be surprising that "new age" brands like Whole Foods and JetBlue have large followings and older and much larger brands like Kroger (KR) and American Airlines (AMR) do not. Whole Foods and JetBlue have successfully marketed themselves as being "customer-centric" — the kind of companies that would not misuse the access to a customer's private Twitter information. (Read Ashton Kutcher's take on why the Twitter founders made the TIME 100.)

While there may be commercial value for using Twitter to communicate with customers, the danger is that the Twitter community could turn against a marketer viewed as being too crass by being relentlessly self-promoting. Twitter users have set up their own rules of conduct when using the service, not unlike those with MySpace and Facebook. These rules were not put together by Twitter itself, which mandates only rules of use. Like many social-network sites, Twitter is self-governed by its members, and companies must take that into account as they join the service.

Twitter is still in the early stages of developing a plan for making money as a company, but plenty of large corporations like Starbucks (SBUX) are already using it as a marketing tool. Twitter will probably evolve into both a community of individuals and a community of companies that provide goods and services for those individuals.

24/7 Wall St. has come up with 10 ways in which Twitter will permanently change American business within the next two to three years, based on an examination of Twitter's model, the way that corporations and small businesses are currently using the service and some of the logical extensions of how companies will use Twitter in the future. Some of these firms are already using Twitter, but their efforts are in the earliest stages of development. 24/7 Wall St. evaluated other sensible and potentially highly profitable ways Twitter's real-time, multiplatform presence is likely to be exploited — in the best use of that word — to expand businesses both large and small.

Douglas A. McIntyre

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