Why You Absolutely Must Get Twitter’s Unique Selling Proposition (USP)

I have mentioned social media sensation Twitter, originally billed as a so-called "micro-blogging" service, in a number of posts over the last year, and by now there is almost no way that you haven’t heard one of its seemingly nightly mentions in the mainstream media.

If you’re not on Twitter yet, you should be, if only to see what’s going on, and to grab any usernames (for your own name, your company, and your products/brands) that may still be available before someone else does.

(If you are completely new to Twitter, first watch this brief video, and click though this presentation slide deck.)

Even if you decide that you don’t have the time to invest in maintaining an active profile on Twitter, you should at an absolute minimum understand that the new "real-time Web" that is emerging due to Twitter’s popularity is changing the game in many ways:

Not only is it causing redesign changes and opening-up at Twitter’s rival social media services such as FriendFeed and Facebook. Search of Twitter’s massive real-time stream of "Tweets" (the micro-messages that users send to their follower lists), is now being called "the pulse of this society" by wine merchant turned Social Media guru Gary Vaynerchuck. And I would agree:

Should you know what 10 14 Million people (yes, it grew by nearly 50% in the last month), many of them sought-after influencers and early-adopters are saying about you, your company, your brands, your products, your market, and your business’ target keywords on Twitter?

Of course you should. Twitter’s recent geometric growth proves that it is finding itself right at the inflection point from early to mainstream adoption in these last few months. And therefore searching at Seach.twitter.com has become an absolute goldmine of marketing relevant information, one that must almost be considered indispensable at this point:

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Social Media Lessons: Controversy Erupts Surrounding Facebook’s “Twitterization” Redesign

Yet another controversy has erupted around Facebook (the recent Terms of Service PR disaster having barely scabbed over) in the last few days, this time around the redesign of the Facebook user "Home" page (the profile page was redesigned last year), which is adding a real-time feed more along the lines of micro-blogging service Twitter.

While I personally am all for that change, having been an ardent Twitter user since early last year, there has been plenty of backlash from Facebook users about the extent of these changes. And all of the usual suspects of the blogosphere are weighing in, with heavy-weights like TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington and Robert Scoble siding with Facebook’s right to basically do what it wants with the free service it provides.

Even going so far as arguing that listening to your customer too much can be counterproductive. Here is a quote from Mike Arrington’s piece "No! Never Surrender To Your Users, Facebook.":

In an interview last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talked with me about how users are willing to accept change over time, and that Facebook would continue to push things along. Suddenly, though, they surrender because a few users have a belly ache over a redesign.

If they wanted to make these changes anyway, they shouldn’t have titled their blog post “Responding to Your Feedback.” They should have just continued to ignore the ranting, and announced further changes. Showing that you’re listening to feedback just invites more of it.

Someday, if they’re not careful, someone is going to do to Facebook what Facebook did to MySpace, who in turn did it to Friendster. Making users happy is a suckers game. Pushing the envelope is what makes you a winner.

While I can see their point to a degree, social media represent a whole new ballgame in many ways, which it makes it harder to predict what will happen. While these “A camel is a horse designed by committee" ideas may have validity in the realm of physical product design (Scoble is using a quote from a mentor about the problems with crowd-sourcing the design of a Porsche), I would hold that things may not be so straight-forward in the digital/social media realm:

1) Facebook already had several cases where it needed to retreat in shame from changes to the Facebook platform, the biggest among them the Beacon activity-tracking system that caused such privacy concerns and general outrage among Facebook users that it had to basically be abandoned.

More recently, the above-mentioned Facebook Terms of Service (TOS) debate around changes that appeared to give Facebook almost complete, irrevocable control over a users data and images even PAST the closing of an account, brought forth a similat swift user community response, and backing off by Facebook (for now to the original TOS, with supposedly a crowd-sourced version being on the way).

So with this partial retreat by Facebook, incidentally again due to privacy concerns, they’re really batting 0 for 3. One would think that they would be wising up on the PR front by now. And so much for "Zuckerberg never backs down"…

2) Much of this is not really surprising since Facebook’s users are perfectly empowered through Facebook’s platform:

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Assorted Robert Scoble Posts Prove: Simplicity Wins

Robert Scoble, self-styled "Tech Geek Blogger" and one of the main users and evangelists of Web 2.0 services Twitter and FriendFeed in 2008 (Robert supposedly spent about 2,500 hours  participanting on those services, prompting calls for an intervention from TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington – the post and its comment thread, on which I participated quite a bit, are a textbook lesson in "Nothing Sells Like Controversy" by the way), writes about almost anything tech, but always with a uniquely personal and questioning style that I view as more of a true expression of blogging then the rapid-fire news blogs that are now punched out by small armies of bloggers at TechCrunch, AlleyInsider, Gawker Media, asf.

Love him or hate him, no one could accuse him of not getting his hands dirty with actually using Web 2.0, including in the service of the creation of countless interview videos with both start-up and established players in the Tech Industry which he posts over on FastCompany.tv. His above mentioned participation actually does appear to border on the super-human, and he seems to at times be simultaneously asking, AND himself be a guinea-pig for, the question of where all of this technology usage might lead us next.

An astute commenter over on the aforementioned TechCrunch "Intervention Post" stopped to

wonder if 10 000 years from now, just one month’s worth of all Twitter content, if preserved, could provide an interesting historical clue to future generations of how life on earth was….like a Pompeii or Rosetta Stone unlocked secrets of past civilizations and languages. And who could blame them upon discovering such a treasure for thinking Robert Scoble the God of the Twitterverse?

Given all of this frantic Web 2.0 activity and the constant exponential expansion of information and information processing in all of its forms, I found it instructive that several of Robert’s recent posts appeared to confirm a theme that I usually try to drive home with many of my coaching clients: Simplicity wins. Or at least tends to confer an unfair advantage to those companies and entrepreneurs practicing it.

First, his post on his personal discovery of the joys of the dead-simple and low cost "Flip" video camera ("The best gadget I stole in 2008") – the one with the fold-out USB plug arm obviating the need for an extra cable, and one of the gadget sales hits of 2008 – reminds us that users want things to just work, without having to first navigate a dizzying array of menus, settings and options. "Do one thing and do it well" (enough), without requiring training just to do the average use case of that one thing, is the operative mantra.

The Flip starts and stops video recording with one large/obvious button, and records in formats that are immediately uploadable to YouTube et al. without further video processing. I opted for similar simplicity this past Christmas when I selected a Casio Exilim digital camera for its one-button video function and YouTube friendly formats over other possibly more feature-laden, but more complex offerings. Simplicity wins.

Next, Robert wrote on what he sees as the promise of rapid growth in 2009 for Tumblr.com ("Tumblr’s lead dev: Scoble doesn’t know what he’s talking about"), a Web 2.0 "micro-blogging" service (really I consider it "medium blogging") that thrives on a simple posting mechanism (via browser bookmarklet that simply works, and fast) for clipping and reblogging Web content, as well as reblogging the "Tumble blog posts" of other Tumblr users one follows – all with automatic attribution. Tumblr may well be the currently fastest way for a complete novice to get a simple blog up and running, and then actually post to it frequently because it can be fast, easy, and fun.

Notable competitor Posterous.com pursues a similar strategy by making simple email-based submission and intelligent/automatic media handling its main mechanism. I hope both services continue to push/copy each other’s innovations, add a few more useful features, and above all, keep things simple. Because if they do, they are very likely to win (Tumblr’s bookmarklet post submission already prompted the addition of a PressThis! feature in WordPress blogging software for example).

Last, Robert did a half-in-jest-fully-in-earnest piece on the comparison of the Twitter and FriendFeed services mentioned above ("10 Reasons why Twitter is for you and FriendFeed is not"). Despite having been one of Twitter’s heavy users with tens of thousands of followers, he had started to really kick things into high gear on FriendFeed since about Q2 of 2008, and may have almost single-handedly driven early adoption of this startup aggregator service conceived by a handful of ex-Googlers.

But while FriendFeed has just won the Crunchies for Best 2008 Startup, Robert makes the case that it has features sufficiently complex that they may prove a turn-off for non-techy users, and could prevent wide-spread mainstream adoption of the kind that Twitter is now experiencing (besides nightly mention and some crowd-sourcing uses by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, the likes of Shaq, Lance Armstrong, Hodgman of the Daily Show and Mc vs. PC ads fame, and ex-Saturday Night Liver Jimmy Fallon have recently adopted Twitter to communicate with their fans).

Whether or not sophisticated users like Robert feel that FriendFeed’s advanced features are useful or not is besides the point: What counts is that Twitter’s single-minded focus on 140 character "micro-blog" updates makes it immediately accessible and understandable, whether or not a prospective user ultimately decides that they find the service useful or not (I had previously described how Twitter’s branding also aides in people rapidly "getting it"). This has also made Twitter somewhat of the "Swiss Army Knife of the Internet", prompting hundreds of third-party services, extensions, and uses based on its simple infrastructure in often ingenious ways.

So, three different examples of simplicity wins, all just from one blogger’s posts. I hope they have you convinced that simplicity indeed provides a competitive edge, and that with each additional layer of complexity (each additional step in the use of your product or service), you tend to lose say 50% of your residual audience, prospects, or users. You can do the math as well as I can: You want to keep the number of those additional steps to a miminum. Less really can be more after all.

So my prescription for you, your business, or your new product launches in 2009 obviously is: Keep it simple!