Around The Twitterverse in Eighty Days: Eight Thoughts on Twitter

balloon and marketing and twitter

I’ve now been on Twitter for 80 days. In the amount of time it took Phileas Fogg to travel around the world, I have sent some 200 tweets and gained more than 400 followers.

I purposefully have not used any cheats or tricks to build traffic. I have used only Twitter’s own app and website. I wanted to immerse myself in the world of Twitter without any outside aids.

There are some parts of Twitter I like, but there are also some aspects that are incredibly frustrating. In the grand tradition of the Twitter listicle, here are my 8 observations about this much-discussed social network.

1) RAVE: Reach important people. On this blog I’ve reviewed several bestselling books. I use Twitter to reach out to the authors and let them know about my commentary. Some of these authors have responded. Without Twitter, I’d have no way of reaching these important influencers directly.

2) RANT: Twits and bots. Even though I only follow “real” people, a huge amount of my Twitter feed is garbage generated by software. Some users retweet their content over and over, while others have programs that automatically list their new followers or spout other junk (the worst offenses come from a tool called; if you let this program send tweets on your behalf, you are spamming your followers). I end up muting ¾ of my followees. The best content in my feed comes from publications I read anyway outside of Twitter, so I end up ignoring the feed most of the time. It’s just too hard to get interesting content into my feed and I’ve largely given up.

twitter bird is marketing good stuff3) RAVE: Networking with no intermediary. I enjoy meeting people with common business interests, and twice so far I’ve met people for coffee who I found on Twitter. It’s a great addition to in-person networking. Twitter gives a good insight into whether two people share complementary backgrounds and offers a natural way to start a conversation, something LinkedIn lacks.

4) RANT. Banality sells. As I hinted above, the most common content in my feed is in list form. And not good lists – it’s mostly warmed-over thought soup. I try hard to produce interesting content, but I can’t see a way to break through the mediocre material that many other creators are promoting. My most popular blog post broke through because I tweeted it many times. I don’t understand why my most favorited Twitter post is uniquely popular. Conclusion: Twitter rewards frequency not quality, which means it feels a lot like spam. Speaking of which…

5) FROTHING RANT. Direct messages are completely broken. Every direct message I’ve received, without exception, is spam. This bears repeating: I’ve received at least 100 direct messages, usually right after following someone. Every single one was a piece of garbage generating by a bot, usually asking me to interact on another channel. Early on I tried responding to some of these messages, but after about 10 replies got no response I stopped trying. Because direct messages are spam, of course, and the people who run the bots don’t read their direct messages either. It’s hard to overstate how bad this is for Twitter’s brand. Every other half-decent service solved spam years ago. I keep spam off my blog for free with Akismet, for example. How is this so hard? Why can’t I fix this in Twitter’s native app?

6) ECSTATIC RAVE. Unrivaled for breaking news. This summer I learned that a wildfire was devastating Middletown, CA, on Twitter. Periscope users were live-broadcasting the fires. This level of immediacy isn’t available anywhere else, and offers the most powerful argument I can think of in favor of Twitter. While this observation is as old as Twitter itself, I didn’t fully appreciate its power until an urgent and unfiltered breaking event appeared on my feed.

7) RANT. Where is everybody? 90% of my real-life friends are on Facebook (a steady trickle quits). 99% of my business contacts are on LinkedIn. But only around half of my friends and colleagues are on Twitter, and half of this group have abandoned their accounts. Very few of my interactors are people I know in real life. It’s not necessarily a problem but also not what I expected. Twitter didn’t build universal appeal and the quitters don’t seem likely to come back.

twitter tv is twitter marketing8) RAVE. Live other lives. One of the pressing problems with other digital networks – indeed, with much of the Internet – is that they constrict your experience to people like you. When you choose a virtual town square over its physical equivalent, you inevitably filter out those who don’t share your experiences, interests, prejudices, and background.

Twitter offers a way out of this troubling social trend because an entirely different group of people is just a click away. My favorite Twitter pastime is clicking on a random trending topic and trying to learn what it is and why people care about it. A click puts me in the middle of Argentinian politics, tween angst, or a college football rivalry. I learn something and, just maybe, gain a little empathy. For all its problems, Twitter may be the first platform that really can unleash the universalist ideals the Internet was founded on (remember those?) Global harmony! Peace and freedom! Reality is always more complicated than utopia, but Twitter uniquely offers a way to foster understanding across social and cultural barriers.

There and Back Again

Twitter is hard to define. As a social network, it is uniquely indispensable for breaking news and breaking down barriers. No other communication tool feels so open. As a product, however, it is in dire condition.

Twitter defines our cultural moment more than any other technology. Even if it will never be used as universally as Facebook, for example, it was Facebook that adopted Twitter’s hashtag innovation and not the other way around. Twitter has changed what communication means, and is changing our habits and expectations around this new order – much as radio once did generations ago, and the telegraph did decades before that.

The companies that brought these earlier inventions to the mass market – RCA and Western Union – are no longer movers of the world, yet their names endure and are endowed with respect. Perhaps this is Twitter’s future. There are far worse fates for the great disruptions of our age.

Yes, you can (and should) follow me on Twitter.


Do This, See This, Buy This: Modsy

Do This See This Buy This is a feature about great products and services for marketersI dislike furniture shopping. I really, really dislike furniture shopping.

Every time I have to buy furniture, I feel like I’m stepping into a bad David Mamet play. Pushy salespeople are trying to pass off knotty oak as mahogany and then sell me extended warranties. Ordering online is an option, but there’s no good way to know if a piece will “fit” with the space. Shipments arrive weeks late. It’s a frustrating consumer experience – and with a move coming up I was dreading my next shopping trip.

Then I saw a launch announcement from Modsy in my LinkedIn feed and discovered a promising solution.

ModsyModsy is taking the pain out of room design using the mobile tools you already have. Simply use Modsy’s design engine to locate your style preferences, then take pictures of the room you want to furnish. Modsy enables you to digitally arrange pieces you’ll like right on the screen. You’ll know what the finished room looks like before buying a thing, all without a trip to the mall.

Modsy’s blog has some great examples of how its tool is working for some of its first users. The blog also introduces the founders, who include CMU leading light Shanna Tellerman.

Right now the product is in beta. I signed up, and if you are like me and also think interior design can be better, you should too.

Logo courtesy of Modsy

A Tale of Two Positions

Positioning by Ries and Trout a strategy classicAl Ries and Jack Trout wrote Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind to show how companies can capture a unique position for their brands in the minds of their customers. Almost all of their ideas are now gospel – and almost all of their examples use brands, technologies, and companies that are no longer a part of our ever-changing economy.

If they were to write Positioning today, Ries and Trout would use examples from the startup world. Perhaps they would cite the positioning strategies of Jet and Gusto.

A Position Stuck on the Runway

Jet is an e-commerce site offering a wide range of products at low prices. Jet has garnered substantial press and lots of investment, raising more than $200 million before launch.

The company originally built a business model based on a $50 annual membership fee and low prices. The prices would be especially low compared to competitors if customers would follow the site’s prompts to ship multiple items together. “If we can educate them that, ‘Look, instead of buying one thing every week, come back every two weeks and buy two things and you will save a few percent,’ it’s actually a lot of money,” said CTO Mike Hanrahan in a January cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek. marketing But Jet is attacking a position firmly held by established companies. Amazon’s Prime membership program, offering low prices and fast shipping for $99 a year, already counts 44 million members in the U.S. Costco’s $55 membership offers low-priced goods in stores and online to 81 million members. Consumers already think of these companies if they want to pay a membership fee in return for low prices and other benefits.

Even if Jet offers the lowest prices, with only $200 million it cannot hope to attack companies that control hundreds of billions of dollars in resources. The position Jet seeks as a low-price member club is just not available.

And so, three months after launching, Jet announced it would eliminate its membership fee. New York Times commenter Mitch P. wrote: “I don’t need a new vision of shopping. In fact I think my soul would reject any new shopping paradigms. For better or for worse, I’m sticking with Costco and Amazon.” There is no room in consumers’ minds for a new entrant in this space: the existing companies are dominant.

Jet is still trying to attract customers in expensive ways. The company continues to demonstrate its ability to shave its prices a little lower if customers accept restricted shipping or payment options. Jet’s new position could be described as savings through inconvenience. But this is a challenging position because it is difficult to make attractive in a few words, and arguably it is also covered already by Jet’s goliath competitors.

Jet tried to build a company based on pricing and technology, and not on positioning. And now Jet may be in trouble.

Too Much Zen Is A Bad Thing

In September, I received an email from startup ZenPayroll to let me know the company was changing its name to Gusto. The company also announced a line extension, introducing benefits and worker’s comp to its original payroll-as-a-service offering.

The company explained that the new name expresses the enthusiasm its customers feel for its service. This is a true statement in my experience. I know several small business owners who use Gusto, and they have a tendency to tell me how much they love their payroll provider (even though we are talking about something else). Gusto has good reason to feel it can increase its share of wallet from its loyal customers.

But still I question both the new name and combining the rebranding with a new product announcement. This plan doesn’t meet the rules of positioning.

Zenpayroll marketingZenPayroll always was a problematic name, partly because the company got unlucky. Founded in 2011, the company led a wave of businesses using the “zen” branding concept. As of late 2015, I count a dozen “zen” startups in the Bay Area alone:

  • Zenboxx (accessory for Macs)
  • Zencoder (basically Pied Piper (link), only real)
  • Zendesk (customer service as a service)
  • Zendrive (vehicle analytics using smartphone sensors)
  • Zendure (portable chargers for devices)
  • Zenedge (military-grade virtual firewalls)
  • Zenefits (cloud HR service)
  • Zenfolio (websites for photographers)
  • Zengularity (web app programming consultants)
  • ZenPurchase (procurement software; changed name to Coupa)
  • Zenput (mobile data collection software)
  • Zenti (data mining platform)

Zenefits, a competitor founded in 2013, was the real killer. Zenefits grew much faster than Gusto and provided a full HR platform. The names and market spaces were too similar, and so Gusto was ejected from its original brand.

But if the “zen” part was an unlucky loss, the “payroll” part was a foreseeable problem. In Positioning, Ries and Trout use Eastern Airlines as an example of a restrictive brand name. Customers would not consider Eastern a national carrier because its very name denied what it was trying to be. In the same way, ZenPayroll restricted itself from the very beginning with too narrow a brand.

Gusto marketingThe company has now replaced this issue with another. Gusto may be too clever – existing customers can appreciate it, while new prospects won’t be able to understand or differentiate it. A Google search for “gusto” made from a San Francisco IP address finds a number of other products using this name:

  • At least 3 restaurants in California
  • Nescafe Dolce Gusto single-serve brewing systems
  • The Mahindra Gusto scooter
  • A Yu-Gi-Oh! character named Gusto
  • The Samsung Gusto, a flip phone
  • And numerous coffee shops, apps, and other products

Gusto is prominent in paid advertising and is mentioned in articles, but the company’s site is nowhere in the native search results. And notwithstanding the quality of service Gusto offers, many of the products that share its name could be considered inferior by its typical buyer, an American manager.

Clearly the ZenPayroll brand had to change, but now it is not unique or clearly positive. Moreover, the company is trying to associate it with new products: workers comp and benefits. The net effect is to eliminate any position its name maintained in the minds of target customers. Gusto describes the mindset of existing customers but may not appeal to new customers because it is too widely associated with other product categories.

Better would have been to change the company’s name at least a year ago, as soon as the competitive threat from Zenefits was clear. Applying the tenets of positioning, ZenPayroll/Gusto could see that Zenefits had the better name and would dominate the broader cloud HR services category as long as Gusto kept its original name. Only once a new name was established should Gusto have attempted to introduce new products.

Gusto could thrive despite its positioning challenge. Positioning is important, but cultivating evangelical customers also can be a winning strategy. A different series of positioning choices would have set Gusto on a more blissful path.


Company logos courtesy of Jet and Gusto.