I just watched this great interview with Ben Lerer from Thrillist. In it he makes an excellent point about how, despite the fact that they make the majority of their money from their e-commerce arm, Jack Threads, they are still a media company. They produce great content through Thrillist and then monetize your engagement not by punching you in the face with some dumb banner ad, but by recommending things you might like to buy on JackThreads. They market stuff to you that you might actually want. I love this.
Twitter vs App.net
This fits nicely with my position on the Twitter vs App.net debate calling into question whether or not social networks should be supported by ad revenues. I actually love it when ads improve the process of discovery, you’re in the act of looking for something: interesting content, things to buy, things to do, and an ad is conveniently placed to solve that problem. I have previously argued that I would gladly concede large amount of privacy protection in order to get only targeted ads of stuff I might actually want instead of getting punched in the face with Ford Truck and Geico gecko commercials as the daily cost of the watching the Daily Show. It’s for this reason that I a) love that the debate about whether large tech companies should be ad revenue driven but b) think Twitter is really the wrong target here.
Discovery vs Utility
The crux of App.net’s argument is that Twitter is a social utility, a tool for communicating with other people and selling ads gets in the way of that core function. I completely disagree. I think only a small subset of technorati view Twitter primarily as a communication tool used in lieu of email or SMS to communicate with people they know. I would argue the vast majority of Twitter’s value is in discovery, following people that you don’t have a direct relationship with to view interesting content and occasionally engaging those people in fleeting conversations. I think both Twitter and Thrillist are discovery tools. When I’m on Thrillist I’m looking for cool stuff to do/buy and they offer me a monetized e-commerce pathway to get that stuff (great ad). When I’m looking at my Twitter stream I’m generally looking for interesting content and Twitter uses my data to sell promoted tweets which I quite often also find to be interesting (great ad). Another awesome example is the Foursquare/Amex offer of instant check-ins specials. Last week I was in a café in The Mission looking for a place to meet up for drinks, I checked in at the café and saw via the new Discover tool that there was a great bar nearby with a $10 coupon if I checked-in and spent X. Done, drinks set, checked in and paid with my Amex and automatically got the coupon (fantastic ad).
I would contrast this directly with Facebook and Google search/mail, which hew much closer to the definition of social utilities to me. When I’m searching for something, I want the answer, when I’m on Facebook I’m trying to communicate directly with my friends ads are a distraction and a non-sequitter, a punch in the face and cost of using incredibly powerful software for free. It’s in this direction that I think this debate should be raging and I think this part of the reason why Twitter/Foursquare are flourishing in mobile while Facebook flounders. Mobile forces you to focus on your core product because quite simply you don’t have a sidebar, both literally (there aren’t enough pixels) and metaphorically since mobile users tend to be much more focused on their immediate task. The sidebar of excess attention is the bread and butter of Google and Facebook’s monetization strategy whereas Twitter gets its revenue directly from the core stream.
Full disclosure: I have zero experience in this industry and offer no solutions, but I would love it if companies took Thrillist’s approach and made more of their revenues from useful ads rather than ones that punch you in the face.
Update: There is a great Branch going on about this topic. Going to experiment with embedded Branch now.