In the history of anything whatsoever, timing is rarely, if ever, coincidental. More often these days, however, the strategy behind it looks confusing. Just days before it’s scheduled to hold its developers conference in San Francisco (tomorrow and Thursday), Twitter revealed that it is in the process of either acquiring or building applications that will compete directly with the Twitter clients these developers will be taught how to build.
On Friday, Twitter revealed it was in the midst of purchasing Tweetie, believed to be the most popular Twitter client for Apple’s iPhone. That product will become “Twitter for iPhone.” That same day, the service released a Twitter client for BlackBerry; and it’s that second event that let developers know, as Arlo Guthrie once put it, that there’s a movement.
This morning, we learned what that movement is towards: In a blog post, the company revealed its first genuine advertising platform, in the form of so-called Promoted Tweets. Taking the same general format as an ordinary tweet, these sponsored tweets will begin appearing individually (not collectively) at the top of results for Twitter searches.
But perhaps more importantly, they will appear inside Twitter clients for mobile devices — not immediately, but rather after a first phase rollout on the Web. During that time, Twitter wants to learn how users interact with these entities, which will be real tweets, after all. It will be that interaction, founder Biz Stone says, which determines whether a Promoted Tweet remains visible to users for any length of time.
“We strongly believe that Promoted Tweets should be useful to you,” Stone wrote this morning. “We’ll attempt to measure whether the Tweets resonate with users and stop showing Promoted Tweets that don’t resonate. Promoted Tweets will be clearly labeled as ‘promoted’ when an advertiser is paying, but in every other respect they will first exist as regular Tweets and will be organically sent to the timelines of those who follow a brand. Promoted Tweets will also retain all the functionality of a regular Tweet including replying, Retweeting, and favoriting. Only one Promoted Tweet will be displayed on the search results page.”
That sets up the format for Twitter ads on the Web, which Stone promises will remain limited and, in some sense, community-defined. As for dedicated mobile clients, that’s to be determined: “Before we roll out more phases, we want to get a better understanding of the resonance of Promoted Tweets, user experience and advertiser value. Once this is done, we plan to allow Promoted Tweets to be shown by Twitter clients and other ecosystem partners and to expand beyond Twitter search, including displaying relevant Promoted Tweets in your timelines in a way that is useful to you.”
It doesn’t take long for developers to express their skepticism, especially on and about a medium whose entire premise is self-expression. Last Sunday evening, Twitter platform team leader Ryan Sarver found himself quelling developers’ uproar in a Usenet/Google Groups post. There, Sarver pointed to a chain of dots connecting elements of the company’s burgeoning ecosystem that perhaps developers, so intent upon their singular goals of producing Twitter clients and competing with one another, may be too wrapped up in themselves to notice.
That chain of dots begins, curiously enough, with the iPhone: “We love the variety that developers have built around the Twitter experience and it’s a big part of the success we’ve seen. However when we dug in a little bit we realized that it was causing massive confusion among user’s who had an iPhone and were looking to use Twitter for the first time. They would head to the App Store, search for Twitter and would see results that included a lot of apps that had nothing to do with Twitter and a few that did, but a new user wouldn’t find what they were looking for and give up. That is a lost user for all of us. This means that we were missing out an opportunity to grow the user base which is beneficial for the health of the entire ecosystem.”
The history of computing is replete with examples of growing markets with multiple players, that all experience “shakeouts” where players converge with or acquire one another, or else drop out. Sarver here appears to be outlining such a market model in “fast forward” mode, where it would be better off for everyone if we just had the shakeout now. Twitter would dutifully take the lead, as the one player left, should everyone else be happy to oblige. So the chain of dots leads like this: Too many developers lead Twitter users to confusion when searching in the App Store, because so many things are called Twitter. Or something like Twitter, such as “Tweetie.” Solution: Rename Tweetie with something that has “Twitter” in it, and have it promoted to the top of Apple’s chain. Trim the fat off of the ecosystem. Result: Happier customers, and a swelling audience.
The notion that you control your ecosystem by keeping it nice and trim, resonates well with venture capitalist Mark Suster. In a blog post over the weekend, Suster wrote about the possibility that a non-controlled Twitter client could easily branch out and become other services’ clients as well: “Think about the creative tension. If a single Twitter client could amass a large volume of users (lets say 20M+) then the relationship with the consumer is divided between the client and Twitter itself. Ultimately to become defensible the client application would want to diversify its ‘stream’ so would start supporting Facebook, MySpace, and perhaps even IM products.
“And aside from having great market power (the main reason for Twitter to own the client and the customer) advertising is one of the primary reasons that I believe Twitter needs to own the client applications,” Suster continued. “As people consume Twitter on mobile clients they are almost definitionally [sic] not doing so on Twitter.com. How can you offer up advertisements as Twitter if you don’t control the place where people consume their Tweets? Kind of obvious, huh?”