Twitter Commerce Hurdles: Excessive Popularity and, Ironically, Twitter Itself

As chains continue to explore ways to cash in on Retail via Twitter, apps focused on such efforts are running into an unlikely obstacle: Twitter itself. For example, one such retail application—called Tweetalicious, which rolled out on Monday (June 20)—forces users to agree to a very frightening list of very-visible permissions.

Before downloading the Twitter Commerce app, a user must agree that the vendor can read the consumer's tweets (including private direct messages), "follow new people," "update your profile" and—my personal favorite—"post tweets for you." Yeah, what consumer would have any problem with any of that? A third-party wants to send tweets out under my name? No problem.

"I don't think it's the best choice of words," said Harrison Lee, the Tweetalicious co-founder/chief marketing officer, who also dubbed the warnings "intimidating." But, he added, it's not his firm's fault; Twitter dictated that wording.

"It's unfortunate that we don't have any control. The whole page comes from Twitter," Lee said. "I don't know why Twitter would insist on those words."

One likely reason is a very literal interpretation of what an app does. Yes, technically, any Twitter app is going to be able to do all those things, in the same way that Microsoft's Outlook E-mail client can send E-mails under your name and access all your most private messages. The difference is that Outlook is presumably not sending messages that its human user didn't write. (That said, if any E-mail client would opt to start sending its own messages without its owner's knowledge, it would almost certainly be Outlook. To be fair, Gmail would want to, but only Outlook would really do it.)

Messages that are almost certainly going to needlessly scare off lots of consumers are only one hurdle for retailers looking to try and mine during the Twitter tweets-of-gold-rush era. The Tweetalicious approach is a good example of what works with Retail via Twitter and what some of the daunting 140-character challenges are.

The way that app works is consumers are first shown—after they sign away their life—a series of retail categories such as electronics, fashion & apparel, health & beauty, etc. The next drilldown includes lists of consumer goods manufacturers and retailers, and users choose their favorites—presumably brands from which they want to hear offers.

How extensive are those lists? In fashion & apparel, for example, the app lists 900 brands, Lee said. For the average consumer, though, how many names will really be considered? Like Google, a response might display 14,000 responses. Only the first 10 to 20 responses are going to see meaningful boosts, though, and the boost for any listing beyond the first 100 will be trivial.

The Tweetalicious response is that it—at some unspecified future point—will offer to sell chains and consumer goods brands sponsorships, which would give "higher priority" in the displays.

One area that Tweetalicious is not planning to offer is sponsor exclusivity, and this could prove an important retail concern. For instance, it's certainly worth a lot to Target to be able to send lots of compelling offers to people who say they want to hear offers from Target.It's certainly worth a lot to Target to be able to send lots of compelling offers to people who say they want to hear offers from Target. However, it is potentially worth much more to Wal-Mart to send messages to people who want to hear from Target. An exclusive arrangement would be one where Target could buy exclusive access to its audience, preventing anyone on a short list of direct rivals from also messaging the chain's customers.

"There is an interest in trying to convert a brand from one user to another," Lee said, adding that he "can't foresee our providing any kind of exclusivity. It's not fair to the user."

The current lists are heavily weighted toward consumer brand names. Many retailers may not appear in the lists at all—unless they sponsor—and they could easily appear quite low on the lists. Consumers will have the option of searching names alphabetically, Lee said, which should help.

Given that consumers can easily sign up for the feeds and special offers from any brand, what's the core reason for consumers to use this app?

The service will offer random deals along with a "trending deals aisle," which will display "the deals most liked by the members of the community," Lee said.

There's also the CRM—or at least the aggregated personal information—implications. "We actually have to collect some information and certainly we'll compile that information (in aggregate) and make it available to our partners," Lee said.

Probably the most dangerous aspect of Twitter is its own popularity. Just like the objective of a good Web browser is to deliver the answer to the question posed—with a minimal amount of irrelevant noise—that's also the challenge for Twitter. The Twitter Commerce offers coming in from favorite retailers will only prove effective as long as there is some strict gatekeeper, some entity making sure that the number of offers is highly limited. Get greedy or permissive, and consumers will get overwhelmed and stop looking—and the value for everyone evaporates.

That discipline is difficult in general, but it's an order of magnitude more difficult when the gatekeeper in question is a hungry startup with lots of competition. Part of that discipline also means turning down money from willing sponsors. The future of Twitter Commerce will be strongly influenced not by how many people are willing to sign up but by how many underwriters vendors have the discipline to turn away. That's a heck of a lot of discipline to squeeze into 140 characters.