Photo: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid
Whenever I see someone like Robert Scoble or David Pogue say that Twitter is so revolutionary because they were looking for a good sushi place while they were vacationing in Timbuktu and they tweeted about it and they got 248,305 answers in .0002 seconds, I think “Yeah, sure, but that’s only because you have three hundred gajillion followers.”When I ask my followers for advice on a good sushi place in my neighbourhood, all I get are links to lolcats.
Which is why my idea for how Twitter can finally start making money is something called Twitter Answers.
Twitter Answers turns you into a Scoble or a Pogue, with thousands of people at your beck and call to answer your questions in real time.
Here’s how it works.
Any Twitter user could opt-in to receive real time questions about one or several topics — it would work like putting yourself in WeFollow and tagging yourself with topics of expertise.
Then, when someone like me has a question, I can tweet it with the appropriate hashtags to classify my question into such a topic. I would write “What’s a good sushi place near Reuilly-Diderot for tonight? #restaurant #paris,” check a “Use Twitter Answers” box, and the question would be pushed to users who have opted-in to Twitter Answers with the tags #restaurant and #paris.
But since this is a Twitter Answers query, I can also set a monetary amount I’m willing to pay to get an answer.
If you really want a good answer soon, or if a question is really hard, you might set a high price for your tip, but if you don’t care all that much you might set a lower price. In time, a market would be created as price discovery works its magic.
The real beauty to Twitter Answers would be that it’s real time. So, by default (you could turn this off), the tip that you set for getting a Twitter Answer would start at a higher price and then, after, say, two minutes, it would begin to drop along an asymptotic curve.
This would have two advantages:
- answerers would have a bigger incentive to provide real-time answers;
- questioners might want to to set higher tips, calculating that they’ll only pay a fraction on several of them.
How does Twitter make money off all this?
They could simply take a cut of, say, 10% on each tip.
Or they could replicate the Mahalo Answers model, and other virtual currency models: create a virtual currency, let you convert your dollars into Twitter dollars at 1/1, but take a cut when you convert them back. [Note: Mahalo Answers is dead now, but it doesn’t mean this wasn’t a good idea.] This would allow them to spread their virtual currency beyond Twitter and provide a grey-label solution to sites that want to monetise their audiences with virtual goods/virtual currencies with revshare.
This would be a light-touch, high margin business model once it is set up, since it mostly depends on people signing up and powering the service.
Addendum: Since this was published, Q&A has become a really hot area for innovation. Quora is great for smart opinions and StackOverflow for evergreen, reference-type factual answers, but there’s no real time Q&A platform, and it seems obvious that it should be Twitter. Twitter Answers is at the intersection of real time, Q&A and social search, another hot area with lots of promise.
There are plenty of valid objections to the Twitter Answers idea, as the comments to the original post attest. Maybe it wouldn’t work. But trying and tweaking things is what Twitter should keep doing, and it seems crazy to us that Twitter isn’t at least experimenting with this.
Note: We originally offered the idea of a Twitter Answers service back in 2009 when Twitter was just starting to think about its business model. We’re prompted to re-run it since Twitter has just come out with new mobile apps that are designed to show more ads to more people.
As a caveat, we should say that as a publishing platform, advertising makes a lot of sense for Twitter, but it shouldn’t rely only on advertising. The other successful social networks have shown that it should be just one leg to stand on. Given the high expectations that Twitter has set for itself with its valuation, if it only relies on advertising to make money it’s only going to be more tempted to push ads more and more aggressively, at the expense of users and developers.
Twitter investor Fred Wilson has recently said that for a web service monetization should be “native” and we still think Twitter Answers would be exactly that.