The Twitter Brand and What Comes Next

Twitter LogoBuzz Andersen has posted some really insightful comments on how the landscape is changing in the world of third-party Twitter apps. Quoting his partner in developing a Twitter app of their own, Andersen claims that “Twitter clients are going the way of email clients, ” i.e., becoming a commodity, and that the age of third-party innovation in this space is largely over.

For those who don’t monitor every pulse of the Twitter-scape, in recent months Twitter itself has made a marked change in strategy by investing considerable energy and care into updating its client applications (e.g., Twitter for iPhone and for iPad) and, very recently, its own Web site. For any other Web startup it would sound odd to say that these are surprising initiatives. However, in its short but rich history Twitter has become defined almost as much by third-party interfaces like Twitterific, Tweetdeck, Echofon, and others as it has by its own interfaces, so this activity is novel.


There’s No There There, and That’s Good

As Twitter the company has matured into a more focused enterprise, that was a situation that the company clearly regarded as potentially dangerous. Their attempts to rectify it have caused ripples of concern in the community of impassioned developers and users who have helped to build Twitter into such a success over the years, potentially (but not conclusively) dampening any further enthusiasm to create new forms of Twitter clients.

I think this is a tremendously interesting development to watch, mostly because I think Twitter is an amazing case study in an entirely new form of branding. Can you think of another brand that’s so thoroughly distributed and yet still so potent?

For many people, there’s no there there when it comes to Twitter; their experience is entirely based upon third-party applications. While I’m sure many people use Twitter.com and Twitter’s own apps to access the service, most of the people that I know don’t. And yet that has done nothing to diminish the Twitter brand; if anything it’s enhanced it, helped it evolve and take hold of the popular imagination in a way that would have been unlikely had the company gone it alone.

A Brand New Way

This is not the way brands traditionally develop. Usually, the critical factor for growing a new brand is a level of control; control over the product, control over the logo and typography and color, and control over the experience. Twitter is perhaps the most significant new media channel of the past five years and, for the most part, the traditional practices of branding have been largely irrelevant in its success. More to the point, the traditional practitioners of branding have been absent from this story; there’s no brand designer at the core of Twitter’s success, no ad agency or design studio or marketing genius there. The core of Twitter’s success is built on distributed, unmediated access and highly variable user experiences, things that are completely anathema to old fashioned branding.

So what happens now, when Twitter itself attempts to reformulate that equation by centralizing the brand? I honestly don’t know, but I think it will be very illuminating to watch. (And certainly incidents like today’s mouseover security flaw suggest it will be a rocky road.) Twitter’s challenge is to bring as many of its users as far back into the fold as it can. At the same time, they must recognize that continued third-party innovation is a must for their continued survival. Centralized control of the user experience and distributed and unmediated access are potentially opposing ideas, but they’re not necessarily irreconcilable.

Third-Parties as the Fifth Wheel

That said, maybe the saddest part for me is the idea that the age of Twitter apps may be coming to a close. Taken together, the many third-party clients that we’ve seen emerge in the market over the past several years represent a fascinating kind of debate about how to communicate in digital media. Each client presents a particular view on a new world, a kind of attitude in and of itself, whether it’s the comprehensive dashboard approach of Tweetdeck or the minimalism of Tweetie (now owned by Twitter).

If Twitter’s newfound assertiveness dampens enthusiasm in this arena (again, I’m not completely convinced that will be the case), then it will be a shame. I felt like the conversation was just starting. In my opinion, there remains a tremendous amount of potential in how we interface with the Twitter stream, lots of ideas yet to tap. In fact, I have an idea for a new kind of Twitter app myself. Let me know if you want to build it for me.

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  1. good post, and very much along the lines of some things i’ve been noticing. one unfortunate thing about this trend, in my opinion, is that we’re losing twitter clients that innovate or offer unique features or interaction models. so many clients are becoming very similar in many ways, and often it’s aimed at making the experience simple for the masses. but i’d like to think that there’s room for apps that cater to “power-users”, for lack of a better term.

    the previous version of twitterrific for iphone is a case in point. i feel a lot of great touches were lost in the new version, and i have been on the hunt for a client that fits as well as that did. i’ve had no success, though.

    i wrote a little post detailing what i liked so much about the app: link

    i’m really curious what you have in mind for a twitter client, and look forward to seeing what you’re up to down the road.

    cheers.

  2. A former employee of mine built weskateboard.com. It’s like twitter for skateboarders, except they have an awesome location feature to let skaters know where other skaters are and where the hottest skate “parks” are. I asked him about video uploading and surprisingly he said that when he asked skaters about video uploading they didn’t want that. Again, they wanted to know where other skaters were right now and where the hottest parks are. It’s growing a lot of buzz.

  3. Khoi, very astute thinking. I’ve been thinking in similar ways about the branding and experiences as they extend across device types and form factors.

    Have thou seen Flipboard? It’s perfectly tuned for Twitter consumption on a tablet form factor and completely breaks the vertical stream view of any prior incarnation (Twitter-made or non.)

    By contrast look at Twitter for TV (the Xbox client made by Twitter) is absolutely awful, with no respect for the living room context or the large screen display or cumbersome Xbox remote text input.

    Viva third party innovation and open API’s. Without them treasures like Twitter might jus kill themselves off in he name of the branded control you cite so well.

    Cheers,

    // Joe

    Punchcut / Typophile

  4. Joe: I’ve seen Flipboard, yes, and I agree it shows a lot of promise. Also, you did not sound like a know-it-all jerk in your previous comment. Trust me, I’ve seen plenty worse.

  5. Yeah, Twitter will always be able to do Twitter better than anyone else since they have control. Even though users and usage would want them to, I don’t think they will go the way of email because there is no business there. Email is free and will always be. I think the more we build businesses, livelihoods, and core dependency on *real-time updates* the more we will need such to become a core part of the web infrastructure, and not a corporation like Twitter.

  6. I agree on your points regarding a decentralized or distributed “brand new way” and Twitter really is a great example (Netflix is another, with another flavor of course). I find it interesting how pretty much every brand heading towards some kind of multi-platform/cross-device appearance is urged to rethink the way they consider their brand identity, or branding in general. With all these different platforms and devices nowadays, it’s also very different from the way we used to push brands to the browser, trying to fit them in and make them look and feel the same everywhere as much as possible.

    But regarding the Twitter example, I’m asking myself: the folks at Twitter might have observed the things you describe as well, they might have come to similar conclusions. So why are they changing (or adapting) their strategy? What might be actual reasons they’re heading towards a more “traditional” and “controlled” brand/user experience paradigm? Or are we just interpreting too much from the outside? :-)

  7. Can anyone explain to me how Twitter is making money so far? I have not seen any ads on their website yet. So, do they get money from these third parties for using their API? In that case, it would be awkward for Twitter to shortcut the third parties by pushing forward its own interface(s).

    And another thing I wonder about: what if Twitter does not make any money so far and won’t in the near future? Where do all those millions of tweeps go to (and those third parties) if Twitter would go bankrupt?

  8. This is just another example of third parties truly taking an initial idea and pushing it further than the originator had intended. In the end, Twitter has to essentially keep up with itself and the hype it created, and I think they are doing a good job so far.

    Josh Hurtado
    Royall Advertising Orlando