With moves to let influential users publish newsletters, host social audio rooms and paywall exclusive content, Twitter has signalled its intent to stake a claim for the creator economy.
If the microblogging giant hadn’t announced that employees could work remotely forever, you could be forgiven for asking if there was something in the water supply at Twitter HQ. At several points in recent years, Twitter has seemed doomed to spend its time living out the consequences of CEO Jack Dorsey’s declaration that they were “the free speech wing of the free speech party” as difficulties around content moderation, harassment and the actions of a certain high-profile user have piled up. But the beginning of 2021 has seen the social platform emerge with a new purpose to become the platform of choice for content creators and thought leaders, along with a raft of features and acquisitions designed to turn this vision into reality.
So, what are Twitter up to, and will it work?
Twitter’s moves make sense when you look at the direction of travel in the creator economy. Businesses like Patreon noticed early on that enabling creators to monetize their following is incredibly valuable and have seen many others follow suit in catering to this emerging class of small businesses. With a user base in the hundreds of millions, Twitter is well placed to help its most influential users earn income from the following they’ve built up. By acquiring newsletter publishing platform Revue, beginning the rollout of social audio feature Space & trailing the development of a feature-set to put some content behind a paywall, they’re potentially putting a powerful range of tools at the disposal of creators’ & thought leaders. Given the prevailing style & nature of Twitter content – opinion-based, reactive & heavy on interaction – it makes sense to give power-users the ability to share their opinions at greater length through a newsletter or quickly hop into Spaces to chat through a piece of industry news with peers.
For many popular users of the platform, the ability to limit interactions to those behind a paywall also offers a means to deal with the well-documented downsides of Twitter fame, ranging from unwanted attention through to harassment and abuse. As we all know, the internet can be a great place to engage with new perspectives, but Twitter has had a long-running reputation as a place where engagement is not always in good faith. For women and ethnic minorities in particular, the barrage of incoming notifications that can accompany the mere stating of an opinion someone takes issues with can be overwhelming and in some cases downright cruel. This experience can make it difficult to tell whether other users are seeking to discuss a shared interest in good faith. The ability to restrict some (or all) of your interactions to those who have paid a few dollars for the right to your time and attention might offer creators a means to engage fully with their audience with less fear of who might be lurking among the replies. Add to this the potential to make significant sums by converting some of your audience into paying subscribers without the need to leave the Twitter ecosystem (250 subscribers at $5 per month could cover rent, even in an expensive city) and the ability to paywall some content forms an attractive package for thought leaders.
Looking at the landscape for newsletter and social audio functionality, it’s easier to see where the blockers may lie. For one, both areas have incumbent platforms where many creators with opinions to share are already thriving. Substack have run into controversy recently over the writers they’ve chosen to subsidise, but they still have a number of established writers with significant audiences on their platform. Given that Revue was considered a high-quality product only undermined by its premium price-tag, Twitter’s decision to make it free may prove the deciding factor for creators choosing a feature-set to support their longform writing. With Medium struggling, and TinyLetter having failed to establish dominance in the space, Twitter’s move could hardly seem better timed.
When it comes to social audio, the landscape can at first seem less cluttered. Clubhouse has generated huge buzz thanks to its identification of a genuinely new content format – informal collaborative audio – and popularity with an influential set of users in tech, investment & celebrity circles. But the app, as its leaders are keen to point out when reminded of current challenges, is still in a discovery phase. Without an Android app, it remains inaccessible to the majority of phone users worldwide. If we turn to the rest of the social audio landscape, it begins to look just as fragmented as the world of newsletters, with various platforms vying to dominate the world of podcasting. Spotify have invested heavily in securing exclusivity with top creators like Joe Rogan, and can lay claim to a subscriber base approaching, if not matching, Twitter’s with around 150m Premium subscribers worldwide.
If these new features take off, what should marketers be on the lookout for?
But to compare Twitter’s offering on a feature-by-feature basis risks missing the value of what they’re creating. Many influencers, particularly those reliant on opinion-based, reactive content already juggle different content formats and platforms to maintain a relationship with relevant audiences. Bringing audio, long-form writing and monetization under one roof offers something none of the rivals mentioned above will be able to develop any time soon. When we add this lens, the biggest threat comes not from Substack or Clubhouse, but the social media space’s best known feature emulators, Facebook. With the scale to dedicate hundreds of people to quickly deploying a copycat set of functionality and a well-established influencer platform in the form of Instagram, Facebook seems best able to interrupt Twitter’s march to prominence in the creator economy.
In practice, I think it’s likely that there won’t be a defined “winner” of a space as varied and sprawling as the creator economy. Users open Twitter for different reasons to the ones they open LinkedIn or a newsletter or Youtube or Spotify, and that separation is probably good for our sanity. Our job as marketers is to do our research, understand where our audiences could be spending their time then going to meet them there and we’re better served in this activity if some distinction remains between the users and creators on each platform. For that reason, I think trying to pick an expected “winner” from among the available platforms to bet your content strategy on is largely futile. But there are some potential trends on display which marketers would be well–advised to pay attention to.
Trend 1 – New content formats
I was heavily persuaded by this long, but thorough article arguing that social audio is likely to stick around. Among my own circle of friends & family almost everyone, spanning multiple generations, sometimes puts audio content on while they’re doing something. A format that gives some people the option to chime in immediately feels more inclusive of the audience and draws listeners in, as evidenced by the number of podcasts that use emails or tweets from listeners as a way to mine further content out of and deepen the relationship with that audience. Brands have long sought to rent out these sorts of spaces (sponsoring a podcast or a newsletter, for example) to share advertising messages with the demographics they seek out. To have an impact in the world of informal social audio spaces like Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces (or the inevitable Facebook clone), brands will need spokespeople who are comfortable going off-script. Having one of your brand’s experts request speaking privileges in a Clubhouse room full of CTOs just so they can read a canned message about your fantastic range of cloud solutions is, frankly, cringeworthy. Train your spokespeople to be able to add value in these semi-public settings and build relationships with the influencers who run and own them so that they’re already familiar with your brand story and how it can fit in with the natural flow of the conversation.
Trend 2 – A shifting balance of power
As it stands, the dynamic of relationships between brand and influencers is set by a mix of shared values & interests, the brand’s ability to offer exclusive insights & connections, the influencer’s access to an engaged audience and the ever-present question of budget. At Onalytica, we recommend that both parties seek to align on the first three of these and then agree a fair compensation rate for the work the influencer will be asked to complete. In some cases, the insights & access offered will be enough to compensate an influencer for 20 minutes of their time to contribute to a panel discussion at an event they’re already attending. In others, the influencer will be required to conduct hours of research, preparation, and post-production work to create a video-interview with the brand’s leading expert for distribution on their channels, with a fair rate of payment agreed in return. But as influencers’ ability to monetize their following independently of brands grows, this dynamic could be altered. If those who created & shared online content full-time already had an income source from their subscribers, they could be minded to shift the way they partner with brands, prioritising bringing maximum insight to the subscriber base above all. This will place even greater emphasis on brands to lead with value for the influencers and their audience, offering behind-the-scenes access and expert-led stories rather than product marketing. Influencers who rely on subscribers for income won’t want to blast that subscriber-base with advertising.
Trend 3 – New analytics and audience data to master
Say what you want about marketers, but we’ve had to adapt to a lot of change in the last 15 years. Followers have given way to engagement and views have given way to click-through as the KPIs of choice against a backdrop of new platforms, features & user behaviours. The good news is that an age of subscriptions, social audio and newsletters centralised in a single platform like Twitter could improve our ability to tell who each influencer is reaching. Having plenty of HR professionals among your followers is a good indicator of influence in that community, but a subscriber list (or recent Spaces attendee list) with the right job titles shows a level of audience engagement and interest that most marketers dream of. Influencers will be able to point to a smaller, but more engaged subset of their audience and provide marketers with a much stronger chance of getting that group’s attention. If these features take off, we should ready ourselves to get used to studying subscriber demographics & average length of social audio listens alongside the mainstays of engagement & click-through.
If thought leaders of the type that flourish on Twitter – usually people with an eye-catching opinion on politics, society, tech, business, or culture – choose to reward the platform that’s helped them grow their audience by investing even more of their time in return for the prospect of monetizing their following, the product team will have one half of the recipe for success. The other, and perhaps even more unknowable, half lies in whether ordinary users will be willing to subscribe to get their daily dose of news & opinion. I’m cautiously optimistic on this front. Audiences across the internet have consistently shown a willingness to pay for content they find worthwhile, with many traditional media outlets making a success of the subscription model. But the pie can only be divided so many times – very few people will subscribe to dozens of thought leaders and frantically consume the hours of written, audio & video content this gives them access to. So far as living off subscription revenue goes, the transformation is likely to be limited to those at the very top of the Twitter pile, but the shift in content formats will run deeper, offering marketers new and improved access to audiences if they can become fluent in the new language of informal social audio.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jack is in charge of Onalytica's training & education programs to help marketing & comms professionals get skilled & knowledgeable in the world of influencers. He loves internet culture, Dutch golden age art, baking, live music and awful/excellent fashion choices, depending on who you ask...