Mike Nutley: Why Twitter threatens push marketing

Twitter went mainstream one Friday in January when Stephen Fry appeared on Tonight with Jonathan Ross. Before that the micro-blogging service had been the preserve of digital enthusiasts, of which Fry is one; afterwards it was everywhere.

It is, however, still legitimate to ask what Twitter is for. The simple answer is that it’s a way of telling your friends what you’re up to or, conversely, to follow what those people you’re interested in are doing, all in 140 characters. For those yet to experience it, think text messaging meets Facebook status updates.

In common with most interactive media applications and platforms, Twitter has the power to polarise opinion. To those who “get it”, it’s a tool that combines staying in touch with self expression. To those that don’t, it’s just a way for self-obsessed geeks to add to the level of online noise.

Meanwhile, a Twitter feed has become the latest must-have for brands wanting to seem up to the minute, or for targeting a young, tech-savvy market. And as with any new technology, its potential has quickly been seen by less savoury elements of society. Last month, New Media Age revealed that escort services and suppliers of drug paraphernalia, among others, had taken to using Twitter to promote themselves, at least partly because of a crackdown on such behaviour on Facebook.

At the moment, Twitter seems to be the latest example of marketers confusing form with content, the medium with the message. In the scramble to be seen to be using Twitter, the question of what it can actually deliver for the brand isn’t always being closely examined. It’s the same approach that led to marketers demanding virals, social networking applications and alternative-reality games when they first hit the headlines.

That’s not to say that brands can’t use Twitter. Comic Relief has recruited some 175,000 followers for its celebrities climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. But in order for a Twitter feed to become compelling, it has to document something that is constantly changing. That makes it good for news, celebrity information or short-term projects, but less so for static brands.

What makes the rise of Twitter even more interesting is the question of fashionability. How much of this growth of “me media” – of people reporting their thoughts and activities in minute detail through micro-blogging – is just a craze?

One possible answer to this can be seen in the inexorable rise of Facebook. This time last year, a dip in the numbers signing up to the social networking site prompted many observers to speculate that the Facebook bubble had burst. That turned out to be very far from the truth, with the site growing user numbers in the UK by 107% in the past 12 months to 17.6 million unique users.

While people continue to sign up to the site, the way they are using Facebook is changing. According to figures from Nielsen Online, after the initial burst of trying to recruit friends that follows joining Facebook, people are spending less time profiling and more time communicating. The rise of spam was already driving people away from email and towards messaging each other via social networking sites before Twitter launched.

The same trend comes through anecdotally from hardcore Twitter users. A number of people have mentioned to me that Twitter is now their prime means of finding out what’s going on, not just among their social circle, but in the wider world, as the people they follow use the service to comment about breaking news. For these people it becomes another way of filtering their media consumption, another way of approaching the “Daily Me” of personalised content predicted back in the Nineties by digital guru Nicholas Negroponte.

Twitter’s founders already see this as part of their future. They added search to their armoury last year with the purchase of Summize, and they talk about using the service as a way of searching both the conversations going on via the web at any time, and of tapping into the collective knowledge of web users. This would involve users posting questions to be answered by fellow Twitterers in an evolution of the “Answers” model pioneered by Yahoo! and adopted by most other biography portals. And it was the potential of this service that led to Twitters’ founders walking away from a $500m (£363m) offer from Facebook recently.

These twin trends could present marketers with serious challenges. The toolkit that interactive media has already given consumers has dramatically tipped the balance of power in marketing communications away from advertisers.

The more people filter their media through their social circle, the further the balance tips, giving marketing via influence even more weight compared to interruption. And if their search behaviour becomes based on asking questions of real people in real time, rather than of static web pages, the days of push marketing will truly be numbered.

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