Remember, Twitter: The Early Bird Gets The Worm, But The Second Mouse Gets The Cheese

The title of this article (at least, the part after the colon) is one of my favourite Stephen Wright jokes. Actually, it’s not fair to limit it as simply a quip – it’s a sound philosophical observation, and one that may very well apply to Twitter, the company, if not Twitter, the idea.

What Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey and (to a lesser extent) Evan Williams have introduced to our culture is a game-changer. There is no doubt about this in mind. The concept of micro-blogging – exchanging concise but powerful tranches of information with an engaged network of contacts – is here to stay.

And it’s going to get bigger, and bigger, and bigger. When Twitter moves above 100 million active users, the mobile phone companies are going to get nervous. And when Twitter – or whatever supersedes them – heads North of 250 million users, I guarantee that SMS text message prices will be slashed to a fraction of what they are now (which is almost all profit charged to the end user at an obscene mark-up) just so they can compete. After all, why would you pay 20 cents to send one message to one person, when you can send that same message to however many people you like – tens of thousands, even – for free, using the same mobile handset? Fifty times a day.

There’s some buzz right now about Twitter raising some new venture capital which values the company at around $1 billion (MG Siegler at TechCrunch has a nice angle on this). Skeptics continue to point at Twitter’s lack of a clear business plan and, more importantly, revenue. There’s talk of premium accounts for brands and even advertising, but it’s still very speculative. And however Twitter decides to monetise, it’s essential that it doesn’t come at the expense of their user base, because that’s where all of the value is, and always will be.

In its brief history, Twitter has quickly set two benchmarks. It’s the first professional, adult social network – Facebook, MySpace and the others were (and are) dominated by a younger demographic. More crucially, it’s also the first time business has been able to build large, relevant and engaged communities. And because of this engagement, permission-based marketing opportunities are not just available, they’re welcome.

What this means is that there’s an enormous amount at stake for the brands that get really, really big on Twitter. I don’t think is any better illustrated than what has happened to the social media blog, Mashable. Mashable was already a pretty big deal before Twitter took off, but thanks to a consistently strong push on the network (and a lucrative spot on the suggested user list) the website has leap-frogged rival TechCrunch, both in web traffic and on Twitter itself.

Mashable has about 1.5 million followers on Twitter. This ranks them in the top 35 on the network, but is still quite a bit short of the numbers boasted by the more-popular celebrities on Twitter. Ashton Kutcher, Ellen Degeneres and Britney Spears are all closing in rapidly on four million followers. Despite flat and even negative growth for Twitter and social media overall in the past couple of months, each of these will likely have edged past five million followers by the end of 2009. In six months, that number will be closer to ten million.

And the brands will get bigger, too. By this time next year, several businesses will have more than five million followers on Twitter. Five million people they can sell product to multiple times each and every day, seven days a week, three-hundred and sixty-five days a year.

For free.

All of a sudden, we’re talking TV-sized audiences. Remember when ads on TV used to work? Company X would buy a few million dollars of TV commercials, and that would translate into several million dollars of direct sales. Smart companies would then take those profits and buy even more ads. And then do it again. And again.

Eventually, TV stopped working so well. It’s still as expensive, but we live in an entirely different world. I’m busy, you’re busy, we’re all busy. With more choice and less time, we pay less attention. I don’t even notice those ads. And when I do, I rarely remember the brand.

But on Twitter, most of us do pay attention. (Celebrities, not so much, but lots of people pay attention to them. Celebrity product endorsement on Twitter is the future, believe me.) We follow and engage with our favourite brands, and when they send us a voucher for a 10% discount, we love it. Who objects to being sent a voucher for an item that you already wanted to buy? Nobody.

Let’s say your brand has five million followers, and tweets twenty times per day. Eighteen of those tweets are the ‘good’ kind – the interesting, community-building, support-delivering updates that helped build your network from day one.

Two of your daily tweets are direct marketing. They’re linking back to products that you are trying to sell. Essentially, that’s 10 million ads going out in any given day. Seventy million in a week. Three billion, six hundred and fifty million (3,650,000,000) every year.

Again, time aside, at zero cost to you. Even if you assume that as low a number as 20% of your network are paying attention, that’s still a huge number of eyeballs.

There are about 1.7 billion people on the internet. The problem is, few of them are directly connected. But that all changes when there are a billion people using a service like Twitter. Thanks to the ripple effect provided by the retweet mechanism, even a fairly modest marketer has the facility to tap into that entire database.

Let’s say Apple launches a new iPhone and puts a 10% discount code on Twitter. How many people wouldn’t see that message? Probably only the people who aren’t on Twitter. When everybody is on there, everybody has a great chance of seeing it.

Again, and I apologise for making this point a third time, but it is the clincher – all of this can be done for free. I don’t even have to be following Apple. I don’t even have to like Apple. That message will probably find me anyway.

Smart marketers are aware of this now, but everybody is going to see the opportunity as we roll into the next decade. After all, what an incredible concept – brands join Twitter, and their customers actually follow them. Really, you couldn’t make this stuff up. But wow, somebody actually did.

And you know that Google knows this, too. And Microsoft. And Apple, IBM, News Corp, CBS and the BBC. That’s why so many of these names are consistently being linked into stories about buying or partnering with Twitter. But that’s the worst thing they could do. Why? Because being the first of anything rarely means you become the best. Pioneers don’t become kings; the guy behind, or the guy behind him, who’s been watching like a hawk, making notes and pulling strings, is the mouse who gets the cheese.

Twitter has expanded our minds by introducing us to the idea of Twitter, but that doesn’t mean we’re still going to be using in five years. Or even two.

Things change fast. One really lousy policy decision or getting into bed with the wrong advertiser could piss off a lot of people really quickly and suddenly they’ve moved on to the next big thing. And it happens, just like that. All it takes is one button that says ‘import your Twitter followers’. That doesn’t mean the idea was bad – far from it, the idea was brilliant. You just got caught in a trap. And what’s really going to sting is that it was one that you inevitably will have made for yourself.