"Social networks" may be a popular buzzword these days, but the whole concept of the internet was based on social networking from the start -- going all the way back to bulletin boards, email, and forums right up to today's blogs, social networking sites, and, yes, Twitter. As far back as 1978, bulletin board systems were essentially doing the same thing that modern networks are doing. The big difference now is that the usability and usefulness of the newer networks are infinitely better.
I guess we don't have to go into how much publicity Twitter is getting these days. Twitter's microblogging strategy is a huge paradigm shift, and the effect on communication is massive. But Twitter's fame and glory is not going to last.
I must preface this article with the caveat that I am a Twitter user -- I don't hate Twitter at all. But I do see it as being overhyped on a massive level and predict its obsolescence in a year or less. In this article, I'll tell you why.
The social media graveyard
In predicting the future of Twitter, it helps to put it into context with its predecessors in the social networking landscape.
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Friendster arrived on the scene in 2003, and it quickly became a popular site for the younger crowd that, which immediately saw the benefit of hooking up with friends, family, and acquaintances online, and sharing communications, photos, and the like. Unfortunately, almost immediately after the launch of Friendster, a group of employees at a company called eUniverse saw the potential, launched MySpace, and within a short span of time were able to convert all of Friendster's users and a few million more onto their own social media platform. By June 2006, MySpace was the leading social networking site in the U.S. Fast forward a couple years, and Facebook has done the same thing -- only in a shorter period of time.
Twitter's role in social media
At some point during the advent of these new social media websites, marketing and advertising agencies found a new way to advertise to their demographics. The current definition of "social media marketing" was born. All you need to do is create a profile, round up a few thousand "friends," and you have an instant platform on which to market your products or services. This has been a godsend for both individuals and companies. Companies can target people that actually are interested, and individuals can keep up with their brands.
Twitter's functionality is infinitely simpler than any of the previously mentioned sites, but its simplicity is what seems to be exciting to its user base at this point in time. No one has to be a profound -- or even good -- writer to be a popular Twitterer. Repeat the formula in the previous paragraph, and you have an instant way to market with little overhead. Signal-to-noise ratio on Twitter is also fairly low, so marketers hopping on the bandwagon now are almost guaranteed a modicum of success using the platform.
As with any internet "gold rush," as soon as others demonstrate success, everyone moves in, and the "next big thing" is born. This is exactly how email spam happened in the first place. Email was a great way to market the first few years it was around. No one even knew that it was inappropriate to send unsolicited messages. Granted, the new paradigm is to choose which companies you'd like to follow -- but the signal-to-noise ratio becomes unreasonable at some point, and the medium loses viability. Take MySpace, for example. I have not logged onto the site for months now, but I know if I do, I will have dozens (if not hundreds) of friend requests and invites to things I have 0 percent interest in. The time spent truly using the site is not worth the time it takes to deal with the spam.
Twitter is fast approaching the same situation. All I have to do is mention QuickBooks, and I have 30 QuickBooks "experts" following me in hopes of getting business. How long will it take to wear people down dealing with these kinds of requests? There are already services offering to monetize your tweets by injecting "relevant" ads. Not a happy way to spend my social time online, I must say.
I predict Twitter will find its social media and marketing niche, but I cannot see it being nearly as important as some marketers are making it out to be. The retention rate of Twitter is said to be only around 30 percent, which means seven out of 10 people try it out once and don't come back.
Today's model, tomorrow's Wave
Twitter seems to be proud of the fact that it has no profit model. I'm imagining that the company will want to keep the hype building long enough to sell the company for a few billion dollars. This is great for Twitter, but when the platform becomes obsolete and goes the way of Friendster, the marketing folks that are evangelizing Twitter now had better have an alternative.
I also cannot foresee Twitter's user base growing too much higher than it is now. The limited and obscure nomenclature (RT, @username, #, etc.) will confuse the masses. The simple functionality of Twitter will also lead to a glut of competition in the next few months, with companies duking it out for the best implementation of the microblogging model. There's not enough to Twitter to keep it on the top of the heap. Being first in this case, as we've seen, is not a guarantee that you will have longevity.
Just in the time that it has taken to scope out this article, Google announced its next big initiative: Google Wave. Wave is an open source initiative that promises to overtake both email and social networking. I would encourage anyone interested to view the demo.
Wave seems to be another paradigm shift in terms of online communication. Emails, tweets, and communication within social networking sites could all quickly be replaced by what Google is calling "waves." This is the type of innovation that will fold all communications into an easier-to-manage package. As much as I enjoy my time online, I do not enjoy logging into five different sites and an email client to manage my communications.
How to think about social media marketing
Social media marketing is a viable and necessary industry. I have many clients that are now intimate with their Facebook, Twitter, and Vimeo accounts. There is value in establishing good communication with customers through these tools. I do believe, however, that strong branding and general communication is still the No. 1 tool in the toolbox. Have a consistent message. Present yourself appropriately in all media. Have a well-designed and responsive website.
Test different media, but let's not get caught up in just one. Twitter is not the final answer to social media marketing. Staying aware, good writing, and good communication will always be more important. Think "writing" instead of "blogging" or "tweeting."
Be aware that tactics change based on the tools available. In the days of MySpace, it was enough to set up a bot to friend anyone you could. Now, with Twitter, you can search for particular keywords people are using and follow them, hoping they'll follow you back. When Twitter becomes obsolete, how will we reconnect to our audience? No one has that answer until the next big thing comes around -- but I can guarantee it's not far away.
There is a strong contingent of people intent on making online social media marketing a viable industry. This is a good thing as long as we aren't using this as an excuse to surf the web all day, trying to find ways to mention our products or services. Participating in the social web will be helpful for the success of businesses, but not vital. The online community is hyper-sensitive to marketing tactics, and as soon as a social media marketing tool becomes spammy, it immediately becomes irrelevant.
You can send a tweet to author Jason Clark at @clarkster ;)
Jason Clark is VP and creative director at VIA Internet Studio.
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