Twitter’s identity crisis

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A while ago, Ben Brooks wrote a detailed article on the fragility of free services. This triggered a vigorous blogger discussion of Twitter and how its much-maligned QuickBar was the wrong way to earn revenue. Ben, and many others, would rather pay directly to use their favorite software.

I agree with him, but we are the minority. The user base of Facebook or Twitter would plummet if the user had to pay. Instead, Facebook makes a substantial sum of money with its targeted ads. Meanwhile, Twitter is still trying to find a way turn a profit but can’t quite figure out how. It seems to prefer the idea of targeted advertisements (like every other site) and promoted sponsored trends. Unfortunately, these are annoying and have led many to reject the official apps in favor of third-party clients that do not intrusively superimpose ads over the timeline.

Twitter is obviously in a bit of a quandary. The company needs money, but the power users won’t stand for ad revenue. Conversely, the regular joes wouldn’t give it a second look if Twitter cost money.

Enter Instapaper, everyone’s favorite service for saving online content to read when time permits. Like Twitter, this is a popular service. But unlike Twitter, Marco Arment doesn’t seem to have any trouble making a living from his creation. How does he do that? Three ways: he displays one small ad on the upper right of Instapaper’s home page, charges $5 for the corresponding iOS app, and also accepts subscription-based donations. I’d wager that the amount of people buying the excellent iOS app far outnumber those giving him $1 per month as a donation.

This is working for Marco. Why not for Twitter? Why couldn’t they charge for their native platform apps, while leaving web access free to anyone? By Twitter’s own count, a vast majority of users prefer the native apps, but it’s certainly not necessary to use one. There’s even a precedent, since most competing third-party clients cost a few bucks. By offering a way to donate, they would give people a way to show their appreciation, but it would be icing on the cake. For those users who don’t buy the apps, I doubt anyone would mind if the website showed a few ads in the corner every so often.

Instead of promoted trends, which are merely a nuisance to be ignored, users could pay to use the native apps. The official Twitter apps already hold up well against competitors, but I guarantee that extra revenue would encourage the developers to make them even better. People could choose to pay, and those who don’t can use the web app instead. Make no mistake, enough people will pay for the better experience of a native app.

Marco has already proven his ability to think outside the box and earn money while also providing a good experience for Instapaper users. Twitter is bigger than a single developer, but they also have a much larger user base to draw from. It’s time to move on from the QuickBar and try a better way.

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