What Keeps Twitter Chirping Along

It’s practically impossible to find a story that doesn’t darkly point out that the microblogging service Twitter has no revenue model, yet despite that concern, all the complaints about unreliable service, the rants about the exceptionally high noise-to-signal ratio, the outright attacks that accuse the company of “top-to-bottom incompetence,” Twitter keeps on tweeting and seems likely to continue doing so into the foreseeable future.

The question in Twitter’s case is whether that’s likely to happen due to a buyout, another round of funding or its owners finally finding a way to monetize a service, like it said it would do, that an increasing numbers of users (including InternetNews.com) are finding useful for more than just posting 140 character tweets (short blurbs) about what they happen to be doing at any given moment.

“We’re using Twitter to get info out to the public and the media,” said Claire Sale, an interactive media specialist with the Red Cross. “Twitter offers a single stream of information, and it’s been most successful in disaster response, like the recent wildfires in California.

“I think people like to follow breaking news on Twitter because it’s so instantaneous,” Sale added. “And it’s self-correcting. You might check a blog or an RSS feed once a day, but people tend to follow Twitter constantly.” The Red Cross has 3,000+ “followers,” people who have signed on to view their tweets.

Less altruistically, some businesses have discovered that Twitter is an effective way of communicating with consumers. Dell (NASDAQ: DELL) says Twitter has produced $1 million in revenue over the past year and a half through sale alerts. People who sign up to follow Dell on Twitter receive messages when discounted products are available the company’s Home Outlet Store. They can click over to purchase the product or forward the information to others.

Dell started experimenting with Twitter in March of 2007 after the South by Southwest conference, an annual tech/music festival in Austin, Texas. Conference attendees could keep tabs on each other via a stream of Twitter messages on 60-inch plasma screens set up in the conference hallways. There are now 65 Twitter groups on Dell.com, with 2,475 followers for the Dell Home Outlet Store.

“A million dollars isn’t a lot of money, but it shows that people want to sign up for feeds,” says Bob Pearson, head of communities and conversation for Dell. Pearson is a big fan of Twhirl, a free desktop client for that lets users manage feeds from Twitter and other popular microblogging sites (laconi.ca, Friendfeed and seismic).

“It’s a good quick way to see what’s going on in the world,” Pearson said about Twhirl.

Good for customer service

Discount airline Jet Blue also uses Twitter to offer real-time discounts, sometimes even offering tickets or adding flights when large numbers of people are Twittering sadly about the lack of transport options to a conference or festival. JetBlue also monitors Twitter for comments about the company, responding quickly to compliments and complaints, and following its customers.

“Asking when Twitter will end is like saying, ‘When will the cell phone fad end’?” said David Spark, founder of Spark Media Solutions, a storytelling production company. “The value of cell phones can’t end, it only can be replaced by something that provides the same value and more. Once we have a capability, we never want it taken away from us.”

Spark, who recently documented “16 Great Twitter Moments,” believes that all companies should be listening to what’s happening on Twitter, blogs and elsewhere on the Internet, noting that “it’s truly the cheapest and most accurate market research you can possibly have.'”

Tech evangelist and well-known blogger Robert Scoble suggests that Twitter can make money by offering a premium service.

“If they turned out a lot of cool features, I would pay,” said Scoble. “Direct messaging where I could forward and sort messages, real e-mail messaging features, stuff like that. Or put pictures on my tweets, like FriendFeed has pictures and videos. It would have to be part of a suite of other features, like the ‘pro version’ of Twitter. I would pay for that.”

He added that Twitter could turn to advertising as a revenue model, perhaps inserting ads between messages like Meebo does, but he thinks it’s possible people might complain and also wonders if the advertising could be targeted enough to appeal to marketers.

Describing Twitter as the love child of IM and chat and blogging, Scoble said the big attraction for him is the interactivity.

‘When I post a comment on my blog, it’s usually 20 or 30 minutes before I get a comment. With Twitter, I get feedback in seconds,” said Scoble. “And it’s a worldwide community. You can talk to camera guy at the White House, a supply chain manager in China, a reporter in India. People find that fascinating and useful.”

Of course not everyone is a fan. Google “I Hate Twitter” and you’ll see plenty of gripes, mostly about the banality of tweets and peoples’ increasing belief that everyone in the world is their very own ’50s sitcom mother, endlessly fascinated by every single one of their thoughts and actions.

“I find Twitter incredibly annoying, both as a user and bystander,” said Trisha Creekmore, interactive executive producer for Discovery.com. ”There’s nothing more annoying than trying to enjoy an event with a bunch of Twitter geeks and having to stop every five seconds for them to tweet into their mobile device. If you’re at an event, BE at the event. Or leave.”

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