At the opening session of the D7 conference on Tuesday night, the founders of the microblogging phenom did their part to pour cold water on the speculation that Twitter is ripe for the picking.
Asked point-blank by interviewer Walt Mossberg if he planned to still be running the company in five years, Twitter CEO Evan Williams said “Yes,” adding that his main goal was to shepherd Twitter through the meteoric growth it is currently enjoying and build it into a scalable, sustainable business.
“Twitter’s still in its infancy,” Williams said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
So what’s next for Twitter? The company, which runs on venture capital and offers its service for free, continues to tinker with possibilities for how to build a revenue model out of real-time communication via short messages.
Williams hinted that the first step in that direction will be a premium tier of expanded services for businesses, which could roll out later this year.
“There’s a lot of commercial usage on Twitter today,” he said. The idea of leveraging the Twitter platform to market services and products by directly connecting with users has proven compelling, Williams said, noting that it wouldn’t be too great a leap to layer on some sort of fee-based service for commercial clients, but that the form that product would take remains a work in progress.
“There’s a million ways if you’re disseminating real-time information that it could be commercially viable,” he said. “We’re working on it right now.”
Twitter remains a white-hot startup, accompanied by an extravagant growth rate in its user base, fawning media coverage, and a glut of third-party applications and tools to access the content off the site. But the founders acknowledged that it still suffers from an engagement problem.
The conference organizers commissioned polling firm Penn Schoen & Berland to put some numbers behind the Twitter drop-off rate, and the survey found that slightly more than half of people with Twitter accounts don’t use the service even once a month.
That finding reinforces an analysis by Nielsen Online, which highlighted the phenomenon of people signing up for the site, trying it out, but finding nothing compelling enough to keep them coming back.
Williams and co-founder Biz Stone acknowledged that shortcoming in the company’s current form, describing the transition from user “acknowledgement to engagement” as the biggest area of product development.
Of course, building products to attract commercial clients and turn casual users into Twitter fanatics, all the while tending to the security and technical challenges that continue to bedevil the site, is a tall order for a startup with a workforce of about 45 employees.
“We need to be a lot bigger to handle the challenges of growth,” Williams said.