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Twitter: Dumbing Down the Highway

Why Twitter is bad for your business.



Stephen M. Saunders By Stephen M. Saunders
05/28/2010

What if I were to tell you that I’ve invented a new communications technology? Well, not really “new,” per se; more of a modified version of an existing medium. My brainchild doesn’t make money, at all, though it is AWFULLY popular with a specific demographic: annoying and self-obsessed people with too much time on their hands. Oh, and it doesn’t work properly for much of the time (sorry).

You’ve heard my pitch. Now, are you excited enough to divert scarce development resources to deploy it across your business? Are you stupid enough to prioritize applications based on it over those that are currently making money for your business?

Of course not.

And yet there is a technology, fitting this exact description, that b-to-b publishers across the United States are falling over themselves to deploy.

I’m talking, of course, about the egregious Twitter.

What is it about Twitter that has caught the publishers’ attention? The main reason given for Twitterizing existing Web sites with feeds or widgets is that it increases unique visitors and generates more page views. The problem is that Twitter does nothing of the sort, or certainly not at a level that is measurable. And I know this for a fact, because the editors of Internet Evolution, one of the Web sites I’ve founded, have performed numerous quantitative experiments to evaluate Twitter’s effectiveness in driving audience and traffic.

Proven Strategies Vs. Gimmicks

Those tests show that deploying Twitter isn’t just a big fat waste of time—it’s actually bad for business, distracting from the real task of using proven Internet publishing techniques to increase and monetize Web circulation.

Let’s say your immediate goal is to register more people for your Web site. We know, for a fact, that the average registration promo e-mail blast has a success rate of 0.08 percent (or, for every 1,000 e-mails you send, eight people will sign up). And we also know that writing the e-mail to purpose (rather than re-using old copy), ensuring that your subject line doesn’t trigger spam filters, combining both exclusive content and a giveaway (a t-shirt, say), can increase that to 0.125 percent. It’s all very boring and, if you happen to be a b-to-b publisher or one of its customers, all very useful.

Now compare this data set to Twitter’s ability to increase registration on your site by pretty much nothing.Good Web publishers know that it takes at least half a dozen years before the true value of any new Internet technology becomes apparent. Bad publishers cave into the demands of advertising agencies and needy customers for the latest shiny Web gizmo, bolting it onto their existing product site in the hope of making a fast buck (these are the ones who were selling sponsored RSS feeds and podcasts a few years back, regular readers will recall).

What’s most frustrating about the current situation is that we have been here before—in 1993, to be exact—when the publishing industry first fell in love with the Internet. The current infatuation with Twitter has all the same hallmarks: the unrealistic expectations, the complete absence of business case. And it is almost certain to end the same way, with disappointment, hurt feelings, and bloodied balance sheets.

So is Twitter completely useless? No, for two reasons.

First, let’s assume you take this column as a wakeup call, and shut down your Twitter development team while your competitors continue to waste cycles on it. Hey presto! You have the reverse equivalent of a competitive advantage (in that you are not competitively disadvantaged by wasting time on Twitter).

Second, Twitter is a great case study or model for “what not to do.” In April, the founders of Twitter finally announced that their strategy for making money would be based on advertising. This is ironic, not to mention embarrassing, given that Twitter had spent a considerable amount of time hinting that advertising was the last thing their revenue model would be based on.

My theory is this: If we assume that the founders of Twitter really are as shallow as they appear to be, the best thing to do is the opposite of what Twitter is doing. In this case that would mean moving businesses away from advertising (the Twitter strategy).

Instead, I believe that b-to-b publishers should embrace a future where their primary function is to help their customers identify and collect sales leads. And it’s a future in which Twitter is noticeably absent.


Stephen Saunders is the founder of Internet Evolution. He can be reached at saunders@internetevolution.com.

Stephen M. Saunders By Stephen M. Saunders
05/28/2010







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