Owning your digital identity
Inside//Out: Plurk

What would it take to topple Twitter?

Picture 1.pngTwitter has a double unfair advantage over its competitors; a huge user base (estimated at over a million users now) and a very solid head start.

This hasn't stopped a host of new competitors from trying to give it a go. Among the latest competitors are BrightKite, Jaiku (who is owned by Google), Plurk, Utterz and even Facebook and LinkedIn have begun enabling micromedia updates on user profiles.

Picture 2.png
[Cartoon by Hugh MacLeod]

However, as Twitter's service woes keep mounting and user sentiment keeps edging toward the negative, I have to wonder...what would it take to topple Twitter?

In order to understand this, we need to look at what makes Twitter work. Let's break them down so we can see how it's gained such wide-spread popularity.

  1. Simplicity: Twitter does one thing really well. It lets you communicate what you're doing right now. Now other functionality (no matter how easy it would be to implement), 140 characters, one text field and one button. Anybody can look at it and start using it in minutes.
    What competitors need to do: Though I think that there is room beyond 140 characters of text on a service like this (think video and photos), it needs to remain easy to use. Design and usability needs to be where the majority of the development time is spent. The technology should, as I've said before, fade away to the background. If it's not clear on what the user should do within 5 seconds of opening the page it's too complicated.

  2. Ease of use: This builds on the previous idea of simplicity. Twitter let's you use it. It gets the heck out of your way and adds value by supporting conversation. The interface guides the user smoothly through the interactions. Posting a message is easy, replying is easy and the content is simple text. That's ease of use.

    What competitors need to do:This is a no-brainer. Any competitor who is going to topple Twitter will have to have an extremely easy to use service. Like I mentioned before, a lot of attention needs to be paid here. Too many services offer more features/better technology, but are a pain to use.

  3. Mobility: Twitter has a very strong mobile platform. Not only is the SMS (text messages) updating solid, but the mobile site allows most of the regular site's functionality from nearly any device and network. Either option allows for seamless use when away from the browser.

    What competitors need to do: There is no option for the competition to miss this crucial piece of the equation. The portability of the user experience has to be in place. Users need to be able to update and receive updates from any device in the world. SMS is growing in popularity and allows quick updates from US networks. The mobile site allows more reach and really lets the user step away from their computer with confidence. SMS also serves an important role in getting messages to people and breaking through the clutter.

  4. Platform agnostic: We just touched on the mobile platform, but Twitter's open architecture has allowed developers to extend the service to IM (AOL/GTalk/Jabber) as well as desktop applications. For IM, users add Twitter as a friend and send it their updates. Applications like Twhirl work like any desktop application (think Start > Applications > Twhirl) and don't make you keep a browser open at all times.

    What competitors need to do: This is another area that any competitor worth their salt will need to copy. The open architecture allows the development community to do its work and enhance the service faster than the competitor would be able to.

  5. Strong RSS: Twitter has a very strong RSS architecture. You can subscribe to individual's feeds, your own feed (messages and replies) and use the RSS feeds to build other services. Other services like Twitterfeed use RSS to update Twitter accounts automatically. You can look at my "Techno//Marketer" twitter feed for an example. That feed is 100% auto-generated by Twitterfeed.

    What competitors need to do: No question here either. RSS is a staple of the new digital frontier.

  6. Widgetization: Twitter had this right from the start. One of the most powerful ways that Twitter spread through the social media space was from the blog widget that allowed people to promote their messages as well as the service. It added value to the reader and drove new users. You can see my example in the right-hand panel of this blog.

    What competitors need to do: The more options people have to spread their content the better. Formats should be adjustable (width, height), customizable (color, branding) and should work everywhere possible.

  7. The community: This is Twitter's ace in the hole. No matter how good other services are, no matter how easy they are to use, no matter how comprehensive the utility there is no use for a service like this that doesn't have a community. While some competitors have been around longer they have not been able to build the buzz and following that Twitter has. Some of this is due the founder's background (having founder Blogger.com) having an immediate, connected audience.

    What competitors need to do: You have to transplant the community. What I mean is that a competitor that's looking to topple Twitter (not build a new, unique audience) will need to use the openness of Twitter against it. Accounts will need to be moved over while keeping all of that user's connections in tact. to move user's networks in whole. Accounts and logins will need to be moved to make it as easy a transition as possible.

What would you add to this list? Is Twitter indomitable at this point or are they Yahoo in 1999 with Google just around the corner?


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