Whither Twitter in E-Commerce?

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Twitter hopes Hubbard's the ticket to new revenue streams.
Twitter hopes Hubbard's the ticket to new revenue streams.

Is Twitter looking for new ways to monetize its ubiquitous, global digital communications network? That's what most wags read into the company's hiring of ex-Ticketmaster president Nathan Hubbard as its first head of commerce last week, and most expect Twitter's journey into e-commerce (or media, or data-selling) to be as circuitous and suspenseful as Facebook's.

“I think there's a lot of potential with e-commerce and Twitter, because it is such an easy and fluid way to message to specific groups of people,” says Chris Marentis, CEO of Surefire Social, which helps e-coms create websites and social strategies. “Today, media is about the right place, the right message, and the right time. I could see where companies might want to use proximity-based signals to tweet offers to someone who's following Panera Bread, for instance, between noon and 1:00.”

While Marentis thinks Twitter hashtags could some day, in some way, be used to directly sell products, he sees a long lag time for development of search protocols. Retargeting might be a more immediate opportunity for the company, he speculates. “Retargeting is the big thing in pay per click. Wouldn't it be interesting for an e-com to be able to tweet special offers to people who just visited its website? Especially as people learn to use new smartphone capabilities to filter and stack tweets, I could see where this could really tie into e-commerce.”

Sucharita Mulpuru, the VP and principal analyst for e-commerce and channel strategies at market research firm Forrester, is less bullish on Twitter's prospects for monetization, at least in the short run. In her blog on the subject, she notes that retailers and FourSquare have tried the location-based tweeting tactic with little success.

“I'm pretty skeptical about it,” Mulpuru says. “I think the most that retailers are going to do with it for now is pay for exposure on Twitter with a CPM type of model—basically display adverting that would work on Twitter's desktop page.”

Twitter is a long way from direct sales of products via tweet, Mulpuru posits. “They can try to lead people to products through the Twitter feed, but I don't see how it works with their current format. You'd have to log in, go to one page, and scroll endlessly on that one page. I don't know how you monetize that.”

Jimmy Duvall, head of product at e-commerce platform provider Magento sees possibilities for Twitter after a learning curve. “We've seen publishers like Harper's Bazaar creating their own unique storefront for fashions found in their magazine or brands like Peter Millar implementing responsive web design to better capture a mobile audience, and social channels are no different,” Duvall says. “What's important for social networks to consider when experimenting with e-commerce is the fundamental needs of merchants to have actionable marketing insights and the flexibility to tell their brand stories online.”

Social network observers may be reading too much into the Hubbard hiring before the story unfolds, Mulpuru observes. “Truth is, companies like Twitter can spend 90% of their time dealing with people who think they have great ideas for them, but they ignore them because they don't have the time or bandwith. Facebook was like that for years. Now at least Twitter has a person to help shepherd the ideas.”

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