Three years ago, Twitter was barely known outside the geeky confines of San Francisco. Today, it's a marketer's dream: a free service with an audience of nearly 125 million people, who use it to keep tabs on friends, celebrities — and their favorite companies. Co-founder Biz Stone explains what's happening, where it's headed, and how entrepreneurs can take advantage. He recently spoke with Inc. senior writer Max Chafkin.
Which approaches to social media work especially well?
There are straightforward uses. A New York City bakery uses Twitter to tell customers when the cookies are coming out of the oven, and Dell uses it to tell people about deals on refurbished computers. And then there are companies that are blending together marketing and customer support and using it to build their brands. I once sent a tweet that said, "I'm getting on a JetBlue flight," and I got a reply from JetBlue's Twitter account that said, "You should try the smoked almonds." That's customer service, but, because our conversation happened in public, it's also branding.
You have 1.6 million Twitter followers. How can a normal business develop that kind of following?
You just have to start slowly and react to what people are already saying about your company. You might try to offer a coupon or post pictures of your offices or give a sneak peek of a new product. You don't need a million followers to be successful. If you have 3,000 people who really care about your company and are interested in what you have to say, they'll share it with their followers, and you'll gain a much bigger audience.
Don't businesses with a presence on Twitter run a risk of appearing overly opportunistic or unseemly?
You have to walk a line between making announcements, as you would in a press release, and talking directly with your Twitter followers, the way JetBlue did with me. If you mix it up and keep it authentic, you'll build a personality around your company and your brand.
Lots of businesses now use Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites to market themselves and even to sell products. Should companies making money on Twitter be worried that you eventually will try to take a piece of that revenue?
We've tried to be clear that our advertising platform, Promoted Tweets, is the main way we're going to make money. If a business wants to advertise in the Twitter timeline, it has to split the revenue with us 50-50. That's our business model. But there are lots of other ways to make money that we are never going into. For instance, a company called CoTweet built a system for businesses to use Twitter to improve their customer service. They went from having the idea to being acquired in 16 months.
How pervasive will social media be five years from now?
I hope it's less pervasive. I hope we can get sophisticated enough so that people aren't hunched over computers, spending hours looking at their friends' photos. Instead of doing that, the information you want will come to you, allowing you to save money, save time, or serendipitously meet up with a friend. Companies like Netflix and Amazon are already doing this by giving people recommendations for products.
When Twitter came out, a lot of people said, "I already have Facebook, LinkedIn, and a blog. Why on earth do I need another social media site?" Is there still room for start-ups in this space?
There's always room for something that delivers value in a new way. Someone once asked me, "What new technology will allow entrepreneurs to create the next big thing?" But the Next Big Thing already exists. It's just a matter of thinking like an artist -- of trying to take something that already exists and repurposing it for something it wasn't intended for.