Twitter has a problem. Most people you know aren't on it.
They don't understand what it's for, or why there's a need to tell strangers what they're thinking every moment of the day.
Twitter currently has 250 million monthly active users. That's smaller than Twitter would like. Its CEO Dick Costolo anticipated having nearly double the amount of active users by 2014. That's also a far cry from Facebook's 1 billion users.
Just because Twitter hasn't gone mainstream yet doesn't mean it won't.
I'm of the strong opinion that Twitter is the most important consumer-facing company to go public since Google. I also see it outlasting Facebook.
I'm not alone. Matthew Knell, VP of social and community at About.com recently told CNBC's Carl Quintanilla: "I think Twitter's probably the best-positioned major social network, and I kind of see Facebook on a decline."
Also, Saudi billionaire Price Alwaleed and his investment arm, Kingdom Holding invested $300 million in Twitter in 2011. Alwaleed recently told Reuters he doesn't plan to sell a single share when Twitter goes public.
"We believe that it is just beginning to touch the surface," Alwaleed said. "We will be selling zero, nothing, at the IPO."
Here's why Twitter is a big deal, and why most people overlook it.
A long learning curve
It's hard to know what to do with Twitter when you first sign up. Do you write something? Do you follow someone?
You'll be comforted to know that even Twitter's founders didn't know what to do with Twitter at first.
Here's the first tweet ever written by the site's co-founder, Jack Dorsey. It has no substance:
just setting up my twttr
— Jack Dorsey (@jack) March 21, 2006
Here's one of MG Siegler's first tweets. He's a notable investor at Google Ventures and a tech blogger:
— MG Siegler (@parislemon) February 14, 2007
i still don't get what the point of twitter is. who out there ACTUALLY cares what I'm doing or thinking at this very moment?!
— Alyson Shontell (@ajs) March 17, 2009
In general, there's a long learning curve associated with Twitter.
"Like anything, I think [Twitter] takes time," Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, senior vice president of marketing for the NBA, told CNBC in August. "It's the influencers who are young and urban who embrace trends, and then it slowly percolates to Middle America."
For anyone who needs to build a personal brand, be it a writer, a celebrity, or a company's CEO, the Twitter learning curve is shorter. You tweet, people follow, and your network grows.
Writers like Siegler and I have used it to promote stories. Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber wrote self-promotional first tweets. And if you're any sort of working professional, it's a good idea to use Twitter to position yourself as an industry expert.
But, in the grand scheme of things, the amount of people who need to self promote is small. So it takes longer to grasp the true, non-promotiony need for 140-character status updates.
Which, according to Twitter, is this:
"The fastest, simplest way to stay close to everything you care about."
The fastest way for news to spread
Twitter is the fastest way to spread thoughts. Not the kind of thoughts about what you'll eat for lunch. The kind of thoughts that have global impacts.
For example, if you're a person who is witnessing a major event in real-time, you can express what's happening faster than any news outlet can report it. Even if you don't have many followers, all you need is one person to see it and pass it on.
In addition to global news, Twitter is the fastest way to learn about local news. Your city's subway systems, bus schedules, police departments, and restaurants probably have accounts. You can follow them to get updates on traffic, delays, crime nearby, and store hours.
Another powerful – and sometimes dangerous – aspect of Twitter is its ease of use. Anyone can make a 140-character message and, because it's so easy to write one on the fly, users are often candid. Tweets are a great way to get to know high-profile people, like athletes and Hollywood stars, who were previously untouchable and always buttoned up in interviews.
The best way to understand to power of Twitter is to see it in action.
Examples of Twitter in all its glory
Here are a few top stories the Twitter community has broken before traditional news sites:
- In 2009, a plane crashed on the Hudson River. A man on the ferry to rescue passengers tweeted a photo of the wreck before any news outlet. Jack Dorsey has said this incident was the moment he realized Twitter would be massive. Here's the picture the man tweeted, below.
- The Boston Marathon bombings were reported on Twitter first. The first reference of an explosion was on Twitter at 2:50 PM, almost exactly when the first bomb went off.
Holy shit! Explosion!
— Kristen Surman (@KristenSurman) April 15, 2013
- As the Boston Marathon bombings unfolded, Twitter became both a source of unfounded rumors and accurate, real-time accounts. A startup founder, Andrew Kitzenberg, documented the Watertown shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers. It happened outside his apartment window, and he live-tweeted the whole thing
— Andrew Kitzenberg (@AKitz) April 19, 2013
- Anthony Weiner's sex scandal originated as a direct message fail on Twitter. At first, Weiner claimed his account had been hacked.
- Osama Bin Laden's death was documented on Twitter a day before Obama announced it. IT consultant Sohaib Athbar who lived near Abbottabad, Pakistan tweeted about the 1 AM raid that led to Bin Laden's death.
Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).
— Sohaib Athar (@ReallyVirtual) May 1, 2011
- Whitney Houston's death was reported on Twitter before the Associated Press confirmed it.
My sources say Whitney Houston found dead in Beverly hills hotel.. Not in the news yet!!
— Big Chorizo (@chilemasgrande) February 12, 2012
- The world has watched celebrities unravel on Twitter. Amanda Bynes is a good example. Anyone who followed her account was saddened but not surprised to see her head to rehab and jail.
Long hair don't care http://t.co/WDLwMhziQq
— amanda bynes (@amandabynes) May 2, 2013
The fast-paced nature of Twitter has left traditional news outlets scrambling to verify rumors. Twitter makes everyone in the world a source, and it doesn't leave time for news outlets to be both first and accurate. They either have to wait and verify rumors in a polished story, or they have to report what people are saying in real time and update stories on the fly.
For people who want to know what's going on the moment it happens, Twitter is a necessity. For those who would rather read a story once the facts are sorted from the rumors, it's a headache.
Twitter is for early adopters of news. If you want to be late to everything in life, keep reading newspapers.
An advertising gold mine
Since the majority of people still don't use or understand Twitter, there's enormous growth potential for the company once it goes public. There's also unrealized advertising potential that could work a lot like Google ads, only better.
Currently, Twitter generates a little more than half-a-billion dollars annually. That money comes mostly from three types of ads: promoted tweets, promoted trends, and promoted accounts. Twitter is now buying startups and beefing up its product offering for next year.
Even without a wide variety of ad products to choose from, Twitter is excelling in mobile advertising, something companies like Facebook have struggled with. Last year, eMarketer predicted Twitter's mobile revenue would trump Facebook's, $130 million to $42 million.
Part of the reason Twitter is finding success with mobile ads is because, six years ago, it was founded with mobile in mind. Ever wonder why Twitter allows just 140 characters? It's because it started as an SMS (text) message service, which max out at 160 characters, and Twitter wanted to allow room for user names or "handles."
Since Twitter is really just a flow of public text messages, it makes an advertiser's text message blend right in both on desktops and mobile devices. Its ads are perfect from an aesthetic perspective, much like Google search ads. Twitter's ads are also the same on its desktop product and its mobile product, so Twitter doesn't have to reinvent the wheel the way Facebook does.
But what's most valuable about Twitter is the fact that everything happens in real time.
Google has proven that keyword targeting is a valuable business. Facebook has too. But the ability to keyword target people's thoughts and messages in real-time is uncharted territory, and it's now owned by Twitter.
For example, ABC can search every user who is tweeting about The Bachelorette on Twitter, then hit them with an ad a for a similar show in their streams. Google found a way to monetize intent. Twitter is monetizing current desires and interactions. That will become increasingly important as people start doing most things from their phones, on the go.
Twitter Is For People Who Want To Be First
As Twitter grows, its ability to break news and become a "real-time town hall," as its CEO Dick Costolo calls it, will be realized.
Traditional media outlets will still be around to sort out the noise and rumors on Twitter, analyze it and turn it into stories.
But no one can beat Twitter for breaking coverage, the fast transfer of thought, and an endless supply of original content that's easy to consume on the go. Twitter will be – and already is – the only way for us all to stay relevant.
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