Aug
06

Jumping the FailWhale: Twitter’s biggest problems

This morning’s Twitter outage, is only one of the many problems facing brand Twittter. Back in June, early in my Twitter career (yes, the Twitterverse is turning quickly my friends) I blogged about this – No Twitter Brand, what are YOU doing? But now that I’ve had time to think about this some more (thanks for the outage Twitter!), I’ve got some more thoughts – all of which require more than 140 characters.

Aquatic superstar rising (falling?)... Just one of the great fanart images at www.failwhale.com.

Aquatic superstar rising (falling?)... Just one of the great fanart images at www.failwhale.com.

Over the next week or two, I’ll deal with 3 major brand credibility problems Twitter is facing, followed by a set of solutions I’ll modestly put forward. 

The Jumping the Failwhale series: Twitter’s biggest problems

  • Problem 1: Brand Promise: (in this post – see below) the free ride will have to end, and the real owners of the Twitter brand will not be pleased.
  • Problem 2: Brand Character: (coming soon) Twitter feels more “Social” and less like serious “Media”. Basically, the boss ain’t buying it, and unless something changes, he may be right.
  • Problem 3: Brand Personality: (coming soon)Despite the fresh, breezy cartoon-graphics, the kids aren’t twittering. Twitter is fast becoming an old people’s brand and the problem is hard-wired into the product.
  • Solutions:  (coming soon) My 10 Recommendations to save Twitter.

Problem 1: Brand Promise. The free ride will end.

A Brand Promise is the implicit set of expectations a brand builds up in the mind of its customers over time. And just like a real-world promise, the owner of the promise (and indeed the brand itself) is the person to whom the promise is made: the customer. Twitter carried by whales

The promise of Twitter 

Twitter users have come to value, and expect, a free, open online community accessible to all with 1) an Internet connection and 2) enough time to cultivate a Twitter brand of your own.

The problem with this is that of course, the party can’t go on like this forever. There are real world implications to the scale of Twitter’s success. Yup, I mean big crashes like this morning. But more to the point: money / revenue / filthy lucre / a basic business model. This is of course a no-brainer, because it’s a problem with all Social Media. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, and a thousand other online communities and services have built their huge audiences fast on the same implicit promise.

Try it, use it forever, and pay nothing – with no ads – all of these are very attractive hooks to get people in. But having set those expectations in customers’ minds, no one should be surprised if they feel betrayed if you suddenly try to “monetize” their “eyeballs”. Oh, they’ll understand. But this isn’t about rational thought; it’s about a broken promise.

I can hear the objection: “but we never said it would be free forever”. Doesn’t matter. Your actions led them to expect it would be free forever, which in their mind is the same thing.

A summer-friendly analogy

Imagine that one day I mow my neighbour’s lawn, then laugh off any payment he might offer by saying “that’s what neighbours do”. Don’t you think it would make him happy and strengthen our neighbourly bond? Probably. As long as he didn’t suspect my motives.

Which leads me to the following week, when I tell him “I’ve decided that the price of gas being what it is, you either have to pay me a dollar to do it again, or listen to a 5 minute pitch for my business.” 

He’ll understand. He might even recognize that it’s a really good deal I’m offering. But do you think he’d be happy about it?

An example from my practice

We dealt with this issue last year while I was acting Vice President of Marketing at CoursePark.com – an online learning management network. We played around with a number of options, from totally free access (like Facebook or Twitter), to pay-per-use, or just a low-cost subscription. Our solution in the end: give users a free-forever option, but a) be very clear what the limits were, b) set clear prices on the commercial e-learning content we sold through our library, c) give them an expanded range of capabilities for free in exchange for sharing their content with the rest of CoursePark, and d) make it easy and transparent to allow them to upgrade to the “enterprise” version for larger programs / more support / more member controls.

The bottom line

Be careful what you promise (even implicitly); your customers will hold you too it.
If you’re building a business, people are cool with that – if they know your motives in advance.
If you have built expectations that you can’t sustain, don’t assume that you can change the rules at will. You will pay for it.