Twitter: Will It Implode Under the Weight of Its Hype?

For some months now, I’ve been pondering the question of Twitter. Clearly it’s the most hyped social network of the moment.

Industry thought leaders, especially those in the e-mail arena, keep talking about it being a game changer. Leaders have even answered complex questions about reaching markets with the single word “Twitter.” Then to cap it all off, “Time” magazine this month has a major piece about how Twitter is going to change everything, including business and marketing.

But I still don’t get it.

I’m not talking about the question of Twitter’s business model and whether it can find a solid revenue stream and build a profitable business. This is a significant concern. It isn’t clear that Twitter has a plan or a likely path to revenue.

Carrying ads is going to be at least as difficult for Twitter as it is for YouTube. Paid services likely aren’t a viable route. No, failure to generate revenue is a concern, but it’s large enough now that — one way or another — it will keep going so long as its popularity doesn’t die.

I’m also not questioning the role of Twitter in personal communications. I have concerns that, like Usenet (define) in the early ’90s, it may be destroyed by its own popularity. Usenet was an amazing mechanism for online discussion on a plethora of topics, but as its popularity grew it collapsed under the flood of new users, scammers, and spammers.

There are some signs that the same is happening with Twitter. For example, at the 2008 South by Southwest Festival, Twitter was the insider’s way to communicate. This year users were starting to voice concerns that they couldn’t keep up with the flood of #sxsw tweets. I read recently that the median number of tweets (ever) by Twitter users is one and that 90 percent of all tweets are produced by just 10 percent of users.

My big concern is that despite all the hype and claims of changing the game, despite all the companies jumping on Twitter, despite the case studies of cool and innovative ways for companies to use Twitter in their marketing communications, I’ve yet to see a compelling case. Every case that I’ve seen fails in one of two critical ways.

The first is replicability. It’s all well and good for a company with a radical CEO who is so personally aligned with the company’s brand image and whose communication style is so fun and interesting that his personal life can generate thousands of followers. Those CEOs can be very successful with Twitter, but they’re a tiny minority. Truth is, most CEOs can’t even produce interesting blogs let alone micro-blogs that rely on a near continuous stream of consciousness.

The second is scalability. I’m so happy to hear that some companies are answering every question asked of them on Twitter. I’m ecstatic to hear that they’re willing to provide fast and responsive customer service to those customers who are clued-in enough to reach them on Twitter. However, there’s a reason for the hell of automated telephone answering systems, and that reason is price.

Providing excellent customer service, regardless of the medium, will earn accolades. However, you have to be able to do it within a viable and sustainable cost structure.

If companies can’t do it on a wide scale via telephone, e-mail, or instant messaging, why should Twitter be any different? I wonder how the experience will change when tweets are answered by call center operators working in an environment of time-per-tweet and tweet-to-sale ratio metrics rather than by highly engaged, ambitious young marketing executives.

I wouldn’t counsel companies against dipping their toes in the water, and I’m not dismissing Twitter out of hand. But I’m also wary of the circle of awed, back-slapping, self-congratulating thought leaders who are convinced this tool is the future of marketing.

If you’re in the business of monitoring or influencing the public discourse, what is generally known as public relations, Twitter is a godsend. The potential to monitor the public perception of your brand and, with skillfully crafted and carefully placed communications, influence that perception in near real-time is amazing.

However if you’re trying to create mainstream, wide-scale marketing communication programs, a viable model hasn’t been found for effectively using Twitter. We may yet find such a model that addresses the issues of replicability and scalability and tactics to take Twitter beyond the early adopters into communicating with the proverbial main street of middle-America. However, it’s at least as likely that we won’t resolve those issues and we’ll look back on Twitter as a service that imploded under the weight of its own hype.

What do you think? Is the Twitter unreality bubble about to burst or is the shift so fundamental that I just can’t comprehend it?

Until next time,


Derek is off today. This column was originally published June 11, 2009 on ClickZ.

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