Twitter’s Evolving Broadcast Network

Last week signaled a big step in the evolution of Twitter as a broadcast medium. Starting with the announcement of a weekly email digest that summarizes the most relevant tweets from within each individual’s network, Twitter moved from being just a carrier of tweets to a curator of them as well. Combine this with the partnership announcements made at the end of the week, Twitter is starting to look less like a consumer technology platform and more like a traditional media platform. But what else does Twitter need to do to complete this evolution?

Slowing Down the Stream to Grow Faster

One of the primary challenges that Twitter needs to overcome to make this transition will be to develop a broader-based audience. Six years into its existence Twitter has reached 140 million users. But compare with Facebook which hit 500 million active users in the same time frame and Instagram, which will most likely pass 140 million downloads by the end of this year if they continue on their current growth trajectory– a mere 2 years into its own existence. So why hasn’t Twitter, which has similar brand recognition as Facebook and exceeds that of Instagram experienced similar growth? It boils down to simplicity and relevance. Facebook started out by focusing on photo-sharing and communication on the web while Instagram took photo-sharing to a new level in mobile. Both services were built in a manner that makes it easy for users to find and consume individual posts by highlighting the most relevant content in their feed based on their social graph’s interactions with it. Twitter on the other hand has always been about real-time distribution with little framework around how to use it, making it intimidating and not intuitive for newer, mainstream users. If Twitter hopes to reach 2 billion users it will need to focus less on what has made it popular to date (the real-time nature of the platform) and more on how the rest of the world consumes content (at their leisure). The new weekly digest feature, combined with the launch of the Discovery tab on Twitter’s apps at the beginning of the month should go far in simplifying the on-boarding process for new users by making the entire content experience more digestible.

The Reality of Real-Time Monetization

At the same time, Twitter needs to solve how best to monetize the real-time web experience beyond Promoted Tweets. For all the interest and excitement around real-time feeds, except for a few situations, no one has yet to prove there is a business model that can be built around it. Finance is the only traditional industry that operates in real-time to begin with, so companies like Stocktwits are in the enviable position of having already built their business around capturing the stream of stock market commentary on Twitter and providing additional analytics and services around that information that professional investors are actually willing to pay for.

The one area where Twitter seems to have identified opportunity around monetizing real-time communication is live events such as sports and award shows. The most popular events on Twitter, in terms of concurrent volume of tweets, have been sports-related, the Champions League soccer semi-final followed by the Super Bowl from this year, which had the highest tweets per second volume of any topic ever discussed on Twitter. The partnership announcement between Twitter and ESPN last week to create interactive programming around major sporting events is the first attempt to monetize this highly engaged audience on Twitter through advertising. Combined with the announcement the following day with NASCAR to curate tweets from a variety of sources around specific race events, you can see how Twitter could build a real-time business around curating the second-screen media experience.

Beyond these examples, all the other information being tweeted (except for natural or social emergencies like earthquakes and riots which cannot be monetized anytime) doesn’t require real-time distribution to be effective. The killing of Osama Bin Laden? The passing of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch? Great information to have, but isn’t any more critical or particularly more valuable when provided in real-time nor can it really be monetized appropriately. So by slowing down the stream experience, Twitter might actually be able to increase their monetization options beyond their current offering.

Continuing to Evolve Through Acquisition

Twitter’s broadening platform capabilities have benefited greatly from  acquisitions. The weekly digest looks like it is leveraging Twitter’s acquisitions of both Summify (a provider of daily summaries of the most relevant news from social networks) at the beginning of the year and RestEngine (a personalized email marketing service) earlier this month. For Twitter to continue down this path as a media broadcast network, additional acquisitions will be likely. While the biggest headlines Twitter has made on the acquisition front recently have been for the latest photo-sharing app it didn’t buy, the company should look at Pocket (formerly Read it Later) on the consumer side that allows users to save content for consumption at a later time- a sort of DVR for the real-time tweet stream- as an example of potential add-on services for its platform. On the business side, enhancing its analytics offering to compliment the tools and services it already provides to media publishers and advertisers should be Twitter’s primary focus.

From Content Carrier, to Curator, to Creator?

Ultimately, the type of broadcast network Twitter decides to evolve into will depend on whether or not the company gets into content creation. A recent job posting by Twitter aimed at journalists seems to indicate just that and may expand on the previously announced ESPN and NASCAR relationships. Luckily the evolution from carrier to curator to eventually a creator of content isn’t without precedent. Comcast was a carried content over its broadband networks until it decided to buy NBC a couple years back (after an unsuccessful attempt to acquire The Walt Disney Company years ago) to get into the curation and creation businesses. And as Matthew Ingram from GigaOM pointed out, YouTube has undergone the same progression with the announcement last fall of a $100 million fund via Google to invest in online content creators.

With each new step Twitter takes in its evolution as a broadcast network, the company exposes itself to greater business risks, but also greater financial rewards, by owning and further streamlining the process of getting content in front of consumers. Finding the intersection that optimizes the content consumption experience for users with Twitter’s own platform strengths and capabilities should be the main focus for the company going forward. If Twitter can find that optimal mix, it can become the internet’s answer to traditional media broadcasting.

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