Why Twitter's t.co is a game changer

Twitter's URL shortener could give marketers a key tool for off-site engagement.

TwitterTwitter has been open with its data from the start, and widely available APIs have created a huge variety of applications and fast adoption. But by making their platform so open, Twitter has fewer options for monetization.

The one thing they can do that nobody else can — because they’re the message bus — is to rewrite tweets in transit. That includes hashtags and URLs. Twitter could turn #coffee into #starbucks. They could replace a big URL with a short one. And that gives them tremendous power.

Twitter recently announced a new feature that makes this a reality. The t.co URL shortener — similar to those from bit.ly, awe.sm, and tinyURL — might seem like a relatively small addition to the company’s offering. But it’s a massive power shift in the world of analytics because now Twitter can measure engagement wherever it happens, across any browser or app. And unlike other URL shorteners, Twitter can force everyone to use their service simply because they control the platform. Your URLs can be shortened (and their engagement tracked by Twitter) whether you like it or not.

Web marketers obsess over the “funnel” — the steps from first contact to purchase. They try to optimize it constantly, tweaking an offer or moving an image. They want to know everything about a buyer or a visitor.

While every click of a visit to these marketers’ sites is analyzed with web analytics, it’s much harder to know what people are doing elsewhere on the web. Modern marketers crave insight into two aspects of online consumers’ behavior.

  1. They want insight into the “long funnel” — what happened before someone got to their site that turned a stranger into a visitor.
  2. They want to measure engagement — more than just knowing how many people a message might have reached, they want to know how many acted on it, regardless of where that link took them.

Web analytics is a huge industry, but the tools marketers rely on to understand visitors are breaking.

Web 2.0 Expo New York - 20% off with code RadarCookies, long the basis for tracking users, need web browsers to store them. In a world where we share URLs via email and social networks, those cookies get lost along the way, and with them the ability to track viral spread of a message. Invasive practices like toolbars and cross-site tracking cookies that try to tie users across websites have triggered huge consumer backlash (that hasn’t stopped them from becoming common). Despite adoption, cross-site tracking cookies’ days are numbered. This is one of the reasons companies like Tynt are finding other ways of following the spread of messages.

If you’re a nosy marketer, it gets worse. We’re moving from a browser-centric to an app-centric world. Every time you access the Internet through a particular app — Facebook, Gowalla, Yelp, Foursquare, and so on — you’re surfing from within a walled garden. If you click on a link, all the marketer sees is a new visit. The referring URL is lost, and with it, the context of your visit.

This is why short URLs are so important. URLs survive the share. Because the interested reader is forced to go to the URL shortener to map the short URL to the real one, whoever owns the shortener sees the engagement between the audience and the content, no matter where it happens. That’s why URLs are the new cookies.


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According to a Twitter email, t.co will “wrap links in Tweets with a new, simplified link.” There’s good reason to believe this will become the dominant URL shortener. Here’s why:

  • Twitter is adding malware detection to the links it shortens.
  • T.co links will include a custom display that shows more of the destination before you click on the link.
  • The company has Twitter clients on most mobile devices, where it can make t.co the default shortener if it wants.
  • The extremely short URL saves precious characters.

Back in late 2008, Twitter was looking for ways to monetize its platform. With t.co, Twitter has found a product marketers will embrace if they want to understand how the world interacts with the messages they put out there.

By now, it’s clear that Twitter is not just a site. It’s a protocol for asymmetric follow. It’s a message bus for human attention. It’s able to force every Twitter user to let it know when an interaction happens, simply by changing URLs.

This is the real value of the company — not just knowing what people are talking about, but knowing which things prompt an action, wherever that happens.

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  • http://Www.tynt.com Derek

    Great article Alistait, and thanks for pointing out the role of Tynt in measuring engagement and message spread!

    Derek and the Tynt team

  • Marcos

    Interesting perspective, though it’s based on a very Twitter-centric view of the word, no? While Twitter may be able to understand some aspect of the funnel, the reality is that they have no visibility into any actions that may have taken place outside of Twitter, but still led to a conversion. In many instances, web users will have no choice but to shorten url’s via another service and that will prevent Twitter from understanding the entire picture.

  • http://www.gamechangers.com Bonifer

    Good observations, Allstair, except that…

    Apps don’t change the game, people do. Anything else is fortune-telling or hype with only a flirting relationship to reality. As someone who has made a profession of analyzing the art of ‘gamechanging’ I’m always vigilant for this distinction.

    Further, sophisticated brands identify and engage customers who are in the funnel, even the long funel. One way or another, these customers self-identify, and will continue to do so through t.co and any other messaging technology.

    The challenge for brands is to engage customers who are not already in the funnel, even a long funnel, and to map behaviors that belong to narratives, but not necessarily to platforms or URLs…

    http://www.gamechangers.com/index.html/archives/1680

  • http://www.bitcurrent.com Alistair

    Derek, yes, it’s Twitter-centric. Facebook could do the same for Facebook short URLs; in Facebook’s case, they’ve opted to go the route of the Facebook Connect button, which allows cross-site analytics. There’s a very good reason Facebook’s login page says, “keep me logged in” rather than “remember my password” — because every time you visit a site that’s part of the Facebook Connect network, Facebook knows about it. But it’s still your option to click the Connect button.

    In Twitter’s case, it’s the act of being able to rewrite the URL, combined with the URL surviving the share, that makes this so powerful. I expect that if this gets heavily adopted, we’ll see “short URL anonymizers” that you can plug into your browser or hosts file, which will resolve the short URL to a long one anonymously for you (similar to blocking cookies.)

    My point wasn’t so much that Twitter owns the world (you’re right, it’s a small fraction of online traffic). Rather, imagine you owned a DNS everyone had to use, and you knew the identity of everyone who queried it. That’s an analytical goldmine (and potentially an ethical quagmire.)

    BoniferI have to disagree. Apps change the way we interact and perceive the world. People adapt to those changes. To say that Facebook, Google, and Farmville haven’t changed culture is to ignore the convergence of humans and technology.

    Customers will indeed self-identify; that’s what alerts and searches are for. But consumers form opinions long before they know what they’re doing; often they don’t know why they’re doing it. Just ask a bunch of wet monkeys. Knowing why that happens is priceless, because it allows marketers to build brand strategies that are more subtle, and less likely to trigger our modern anti-marketing “immune system.”

  • http://twitter.com/lennysan Lenny Rachitsky

    “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” (via Hacker News/Metafilter)

  • Lary

    tn0.eu is even better and gives web developers an API to integrate into their websites.

  • Shorty

    It sucks the tweet button forces t.co and overwrites any custom shortener that the original site chooses to use.

  • http://www.mytwittertoolbox.com David Perdew

    I agree. I think Twitter’s t.co is as much a monitor as it is a tweet service. I never realized the impact such a seemingly logical move could have.

    Your analysis of the issue and the comments generated are excellent learning material for those who don’t yet understand how much of a business social media is, in itself.

    One can’t help but imagine that such valuable analytics won’t leverage other future relationships between Twitter and subscription services that offered aggregated reports for marketing campaigns.

  • http://www.bitcurrent.com Alistair

    LaryUnless tn0.eu is also a social site that can rewrite messages in transit, that’s irrelevant.

    ShortyI didn’t say that is what Twitter’s doing; rather, that they could do it. There’s a bit difference; to my knowledge, Twitter follows Google’s Do No Evil mantra pretty darned well. But as Lenny points out, if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.

    So to be clear: Twitter’s not forcing this on anyone. They could do, and for the reasons I listed above (primarily our collective laziness in using default options) this may indeed happen.

  • http://buckmaster.ca Stephan Wehner

    I think you’re mistaken when you say that users are forced to use twitter’s shortener. The ultimate loophole is that every twitter message has a unique identifier, namely the status id. The rest can be linked up by web communities.

    Stephan

  • http://buckmaster.ca Stephan Wehner

    I think you’re mistaken when you say that users are forced to use twitter’s shortener. The ultimate loophole is that every twitter message has a unique identifier, namely the status id. The rest can be linked up by web communities.

    Stephan

  • http://buckmaster.ca Stephan Wehner

    I think you’re mistaken when you say that users are forced to use twitter’s shortener. The ultimate loophole is that every twitter message has a unique identifier, namely the status id. The rest can be linked up by web communities.

    Stephan

  • http://www.bitcurrent.com Alistair

    Stephan Yep, exactly. Nobody’s forcing anyone to use anything (at the moment, anyway); although the malware protection stuff could be used as rationale for some kind of enforced tracking. Again, I don’t think this will happen through any evil machinations; just that the land grab for URLs is a much more important thing than most people believe. We’re essentially reinventing DNS, but with tracking.

  • http://thatis.me/!b .Me of course

    Still, those short URLs with semantical meaning are the best.

  • Shorty

    @Alistair – Do some testing…

    Clicking on the new “Tweet” button will automatically shorten the URL and use t.co even if the site has already used their own branded shortener.

  • http://www.bitcurrent.com Alistair

    Shorty There’s a big difference between a UI converting it automatically in apps they control (which is what you’re referring to) and rewriting URLs in flight across their message bus. If I manually enter a URL today, it doesn’t get converted. A more insidious model (which they are not doing) would be to convert every URL anyone ever mentions — even if typed by hand — to the t.co model.

    It’s this capability, which only happens because Twitter owns the backbone, that makes t.co different from other URL shorteners.

    Still, the land grab is pretty active, as you point out, and the “default shortener” is a huge advantage for them.

  • http://www.scoutlabs.com Margaret Francis

    A well written post as usual. I agree that there is great potential in t.co for marketers who are frustrated (as many of the marketers I talk to are) by all the breakages that occur when they use URL shorteners to try and track campaigns/ messages today. It will be interesting to see what impact this has on the bit.ly and ow.ly and aw.sm’s of the world.

  • http://www.bing.com MikELikesIt

    I agree that it is a power shift for Twitter, especially when you look at the success of shorteners. Twitter’s URL shortener history (& t.co domain history) is worth a read: http://www.webconnoisseur.com/blog/twitter/wondering-what-t-co-is/

  • http://tr.im/sixer Baylink

    They can certainly start rewriting links as they see fit.

    Quick, let me go post a link to this story on Friendster for everyone…

  • http://meteorsolutions.com Thomas Kim

    I personally don’t think that t.co is that much of a game changer given the relatively small percentage of traffic that flows through Twitter. If Facebook did something like this, I would think differently. The question is whether the realization of a forced/closed system would lead to mass abandonment of the platform (vs. sustained/growing adoption). 2 factors that would make or break this change: brand awareness and critical mass. Sure Twitter has brand name recognition, but does it have the relative critical mass to sustain draconian implementations within its usage? I would say companies and ecosystems like Facebook as well as Apple’s iTunes Store have this. Twitter, perhaps not. I think users will want a seriously compelling reason to stay within the system versus the many more “open” alternatives. Then again, maybe the average user won’t care and the onus will be on the marketers to adopt.

    Either way, nice post and interesting topic and perspective…very relevant to the space our company, Meteor Solutions, is in — word of mouth analytics. Also, really liked your reference to URLs being the new cookies :)

    Shameless plug in case anyone is interested: http://www.meteorsolutions.com

  • http://panoramacapital.com Chris Albinson

    Alister – great post and I think you are right that the “engagement” metrics based on clicks, links, and cookies is fundamentally broken for brands. The question is what measure of engagement works? I think adapted URLs helps (via FB Like or a Tweet/t.co), as it is ultimately a social attestation to interest/intent. However, I believe the Like button will have 2 orders more impact. The reason is is distribution/reach. In a world where social attestation and amplification is everything, the math and metrics change. For brands, it is the % of the total population that matters to understand where to target ad dollars to needs/wants. Just knowing what “digital natives” need/want does not cut it.

    As follows:
    2 Billion people on the web: social engagement reach %.
    Google = 67%
    http://bit.ly/aRn8li
    Facebook = 26%
    http://bit.ly/lKkIQ
    Tynt = 12.5%
    http://bit.ly/avKcup
    Twitter = 7%
    http://bit.ly/aRn8li

  • http://www.jpluna.com/wordpress/2010/08/28/how-to-track-tweet-button-clicks-in-google-analytics/ Jesse Luna

    I think the t.co url is a great asset for Twitter and something they’ll be able to leverage with medium to large businesses, but I wouldn’t call it a game changer for two reasons. One, as a publisher, you can still add tracking parameters to your tweets. I did a blog post on how to add Google Analytics parameters to the Tweet Button. (click on my URL link for the post). Two, companies will be able to tie user information to Facebooks accounts as Facebook Connect becomes more ubiquitous. The amount of personal demographic information available from Facebook is staggering.

  • http://www.bbmarketingplus.com Barbara Bix

    Would love to see follow up post with examples, examples of how this works (before/after), and advice for communicators and traffic analysts.

  • http://twitter.com/CristianIsDaMan Cristian Gonzales

    Great post-you bring up some terrific points.

  • http://mikeschinkel.com Mike Schinkel

    Sad to see the well-designed URLs that impart information to the reader just by viewing it give way to marketers who are only interested in what’s in it for them. Sigh.

  • http://keithstoeckeler.com Keith Stoeckeler

    Thanks for a great and thorough account. Very much looking forward to the new Twitter.

  • http://iopenning.com Sam Erde

    IMHO, you’ve missed the point. I’m not aware of any metrics on this, but believe that a large percentage of users already have their URL’s shortened (wrapped AND analyzed) by existing services. The URL analytics are already present, and quite capably performed by bit.ly, ow.ly, and others.

    The point is that “knowledge is power.” T.co is NOT a new concept, it is a power grab. If you re-read Twitter’s email, you will find that they DO state that users will ultimately be forced into using their service for URL wrapping and shortening. Not only will other shorteners lose their main source of business; Twitter also has yet to give details about what analytics they will provide to their users…and how much they WILL charge to access that data.

  • haddadme

    I love the comment that” Twitter is a message bus for human attention.”

  • haddadme

    I love the comment that” Twitter is a message bus for human attention.”