The Twitter IPO: Some Initial Analysis

Twitter just tweeted that it has filed a confidential S-1, with the appropriate disclaimer. Here are a few reasons why this filing and IPO warrant close scrutiny.

  • Twitter is the last of the Big Four to go public. In the social networking ecosystem, Twitter is seen as a must have in terms of a social strategy, and is the only major player left that is still up for grabs — YouTube (owned by Google), LinkedIn (IPO), and Facebook (IPO) are all spoken for. Other upstarts like Pinterest are just getting started so Twitter is going to be the talk of the town into 2014, which is the earliest the IPO can be expected. There will be a certain “last call” mentality to the Twitter IPO that wasn’t there for Facebook.
  • Confidential filing gives Twitter control. Twitter took advantage of the JOBS Act pass last year, which allows firms with less than $1 billion in revenue to file an S-1 confidentially. This means that unlike Facebook, Twitter won’t be subjected to a microscopic dissection of every word of its filing. This is a good thing, because Twitter’s business model isn’t the easiest to explain. As Twitter begins the roadshow, they’ll be able to roll out their story to investors in a systematic, orderly way that enables them to tell their growth story to the world.
  • Timing and Friends benefit Twitter. Twitter should be saying a big “Thank You” to Facebook for carving out the path before them. Facebook has spent the past year educating the market about social media advertising, doing much of the heavy lifting and laying out the red carpet for Twitter.
  • Challenge: Twitter’s Advertising Model. The biggest challenge that Twitter has is that its main form of revenue comes from “sponsored tweets” which is a form of native advertising (see Altimeter’s just-published report on Native Advertising). The problem with these sponsored tweets is that they are not, at present, a standard ad format that can travel outside the Twitter platform. That makes ad buying — and scaling to media buyers — more difficult.
  • Discipline to Stick to the Business. The tweet that Twitter posted one minute after the “filing” one shows everyone at the computers with the next, Now, back to work.” The company has been preparing for this day, and realize that it’s a long, long slog for the next approximately six months before the actual IPO. The team will need discipline to focus on the work, rather than pulling out spreadsheets to calculate their potential net worth. Not an easy thing to do!

These are still early days, and I anticipate that we’ll learn a lot more about Twitter’s business over the next few weeks and months. I, for one, am eager to not just see the numbers, but also to hear their story. Because as one of the four foundational platforms of the social space, they have the ability to shape the future as they envision it unfolding. And the vision that Twitter CEO Dick Costello and his team roll out is sure to be interesting.

Facebook Timeline reveals the future of sharing

Leading up to Facebook’s f8 conference today, my biggest concern about the rumored new “Read. Watched. Listened” buttons was that Facebook was becoming more and more superficial in its interactions. This was especially the case when compared to the deep interactions and engagements found on Google+ (which suffers from the problem of not having nearly enough people on it to sustain those deep conversations, but that’s another post).

But Timeline beautifully solves this problem in two ways. First, Facebook automates the sharing of everyday, miniscule activities that most of us would never bother to expose. But because ALL of it shared as a feed, the whole becomes available and accessible, and thus interesting.  You don’t care that I listened to Billy Joel just now, but you may find it interesting that I listen to him any chance that I get.

Second, the items in the feed are seen in two ways, in the Tickler blended in with all of the rest of debris of our lives, and in Timeline where it’s laid out against the context of time.

It’s this second aspect of the announcements that I find so fascinating, that we now have the context of time to add to our sharing. To understand this evolution and put it in perspective, let’s take a quick look at the history of sharing within social networks. I have long contended that there are three things that make social networks unique: your Profile, your Relationships, and your Activities (see figure below).

SharingFutureOver the past few years, each of these components have evolved. When we first began on our online social journeys, who could have thought that we would be sharing photos of what they were having for dinner online? Yet people frequently not only check into restaurants but also post photos what they are eating, as well as who they are having dinner with.  Our notions of privacy and what we will share change with the perceived value of that sharing. We benefit from the people who have shared before us (you ordered the dish because of a review). We like reading about our friends culinary adventures, and so we reciprocate. The cycle continues to evolve as we expand the things we are comfortable sharing.

And the driving force of this evolution has been Facebook. More than any other company, Facebook has pushed the boundaries of what we will share and how share it. News Feed was met with derision and boycotts but in the end, people found it too valuable. Beacon in 2007 was pulled because it pushed the envelop too far, but that was also instructive to Facebook as they learned how far and how quickly they could push the limits of sharing. 

Now Timeline and auto-feeding of your activities is pushing the edge again. Understandably, people are uneasy about EVERYTHING in their lives being shared on Facebook. It feels like too much power being bestowed on one company. To ally concerns, Facebook is starting in safe territory. This first phase enables media content, which is rarely embarrassing, as long as you don’t stray into X-rated categories. The discovery benefits of seeing what my friends read, watch, and listen to are also evident – I want to find my fellow Billy Joel fans amongst my friends.

But how far will this go? Here are some future scenarios and applications that could take advantage of an activity auto-feed:

  • Location-based activities. I hate checking in, because it interrupts the flow of my activity at a location. Instead, I would give permission to be “auto-checked in” to a location. These are the places like my favorite restaurant that I patronize on a regular basis and would be proud to be associated with, especially if I can drive more business to them. So I’d willingly give permission to share that information. This goes beyond Like and moves into Love territory.
  • Interest-based purchases. There are specialty retailers that I frequent that are fairly “safe” where I would share detailed purchase information. Pottery Barn for housewares. Wine.come for new wines. Zappos for shoes. And I would benefit from discovering what else people with similar tastes also bought. But there are some retailers where it’s just doesn’t make sense, for example a drugstore or Victoria’s Secret.
  • Communication trends. As I previously discussed in a post about Google+, one of the key things Facebook is missing is who I email, text, call, and meet with on a regular basis. All of that information stored in my mobile phone is currently inaccessible and off limits to any application. But what if I could give permission to auto-stream that data so that I could make sense of it, to find the trends and highlights that make it relevant and useful to me?

How far are we willing to share our information and activities? Look no further than to our real lives because we do it all the time. Our credit card transactions are captured and resold to direct marketers. Our Caller IDs – which used to be private – are shared. Caller IDs in fact are a great example of how our notions of privacy get flipped upside down by utility. When Caller ID first came out, many people regarded it as a violation of privacy and were uneasy with the notion that people could see who was calling them. Today, what happens when you get the message, “Blocked ID” on your phone? You don’t answer it! That flip in privacy took about eight years to happen.

But Facebook doesn’t have the luxury of years to change our mindsets around privacy – it has weeks. It has put in place numerous controls to be able to manage the permissions around Timeline feeds, from what is included to who can see it. In the end though, what Facebook is investing in is Trust. Pew Internet recently released a report that showed that Facebook users are far more trusting that the rest of the Internet. “A Facebook user who uses the site multiple times per day is 43% more likely than other Internet users and more than three times as likely as non-Internet users to feel that most people can be trusted.”

Facebook is counting that this remains true, and that sharing will continue to expand at the rate it needs to in order to fulfill this vision.