Twitter 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.
- They want insight into the “long funnel” — what happened before someone got to their site that turned a stranger into a visitor.
- 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.
Cookies, 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.
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.