Here’s the formula if you want to build a billion-dollar internet company. Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time. Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.
Twitter, The Mobile Gap, and an External Locus of Control
The weather is getting colder, so my mind seems to be paying more attention to things outside of the outside. Twitter’s IPO is a big topic lately. Much excitement and much anticipation. And many questions. One question, in particular, keeps jumping out off the internet while I read: How will Twitter improve their mobile advertising performance? It’s a question that keeps getting asked by reporters, analysts, and pundits. And it’s the wrong question. To address the real problem, everyone should be asking: How will Twitter get the rest of the world wide web to solve their mobile performance problem?
The last thing I bought on the internet, I bought because of Twitter ads. It was a Lego set. And it’s awesome. I saw an advertisement for it in my timeline on my smartphone and before I even tapped the ad, I knew I’d buy it. In fact, I didn’t tap that ad at all.
Instead, I switched over to my todo app, and made a note: “Buy holiday lego set.” And then later that same evening, I went onto Amazon.com (not Lego.com) and bought the set. There’s virtually no way Twitter gets any real credit for that sale. And that’s a shame, because Twitter should get a lot of credit. From what I’ve seen in my timeline, Twitter, as much as any company on the web save for Amazon, has got me dead-to-rights figured out with their choice of ads in my timeline. From software development tools and services to dad-tech, to, well, Legos, Twitter puts ads into my timeline that are far more interesting to me than practically anything I’ve ever seen on a Facebook page or even most Google search results. But I’ve still not bought anything directly through a Twitter ad on my phone.
That’s not Twitter’s fault, really. Twitter’s various moves over the last few years, from creating rules that would all but eliminate any Twitter clients outside of their control, to creating their “card” technology are all focused on controlling the Twitter timeline ad experience. The problem for Twitter - and so many of the advertisers and marketers who pay to get on those timelines - is what happens after a user taps a twitter ad. The problem is here. And here. And here. From poor visual design to poor network optimization choices, the world wide web outside of Twitter is just not built to support Twitter’s mobile ad success. Not yet. The mobile web - where most of Twitter’s ads go - is just atrocious. So users like myself choose to avoid it when we can, even if it means waiting until later in the night to do my buying on a laptop. On a completely different site from what was advertised.
Seemingly every month or so we see news from Twitter’s product group showing off new ways to use Twitter’s internal ecosystem to improve advertising performance from within. That course, however, runs the risk of falling into the trap of trying to become a platform that users will never leave. That course has already been tried multiple times, from AOL to Facebook, and it’s never really worked. People are going to leave the platform. Advertisers and marketers are going to want full control over the experience.
So instead of continually looking inward to fix their mobile advertising problem, Twitter should look outward and ask if they can help. One of the few applications that still works fairly well on my now ancient HTC Thunderbolt device is the Twitter app. In fact, even the Twitter mobile website works pretty well on my phone. Twitter clearly has technical know-how that they could share with the rest of the world wide web. If Twitter wants to fix their mobile ad problem, they should get to sharing immediately.