Twitter’s Longform Strategy
What does the future hold for readers and writers on Twitter?
From the beginning, Twitter has been a great way to find something to read that’s longer than a tweet. But even though the general adage is true that “whoever generates the demand captures the value,” Twitter has captured very little of the revenue in digital publishing, despite generating tons of demand. Sure, they show advertisements to users scrolling through their timelines and clicking on things to read, but Twitter doesn’t keep any of the ad revenue they drive to publishers when they send millions of users to their sites, in the form of viral tweets and trending topic placements. And the subscription boom that has gathered steam over the past 5–10 years on sites large (New York Times, Bloomberg, etc) and small (Stratechery, individual Substacks, writer collectives, etc) has entirely passed Twitter by, even though a huge proportion of those subscription relationships can ultimately be traced back to a tweet. This is a company that occupies an indispensable layer of the value chain, but hasn’t yet found a way to monetize it.
Today, they launched something that gives me the feeling they’re ready to change that.
Essentially, Twitter is giving writers that use their recently-acquired newsletter platform, Revue, a killer feature that no other newsletter publishing platform can offer: premium placement on your Twitter profile. Tony Haile, a Senior Director of Product at Twitter, explained it like this: “Subscribe to someone's newsletter direct from their profile page in two clicks.”
For now, this feature only works with Revue. If you use Substack, Ghost, or any other publishing platform, you’ll have to rely on the old “link in bio” or “pinned tweet” trick. In theory you could use Revue’s API or Zapier to send your newsletter subscribers elsewhere, but it’s unclear whether they’ll allow that to stand.
So, how big of a difference will this make? I’m sure they’re A/B testing it, and I’d expect to see a pretty huge impact, especially in the early days when the novelty of the banner will attract increased attention from readers. If I was a PM at Twitter, I wouldn’t be that surprised if I saw as high as 50% increases in conversions from “view profile” to “subscribe to newsletter.”
This is obviously huge for writers and publishers. Twitter knows what they want, and it is simple: email subscribers. Especially for those building paid subscription businesses, the most important thing is to build deep, recurring relationships with readers. Email is the best channel for that right now. Twitter’s goal, it seems, is to make Revue the best place to publish for independent writers considering Substack or Ghost. If Ghost gives you the most control with the lowest fees, and Substack is the most widely-known brand with the biggest network of paid newsletter subscribers, then Twitter is hoping it can win by siphoning some of their massive flows of attention directly into your email list.
But to me, the real question is: Why? Why does Twitter want to compete with Substack and Ghost at all? Why not let people use this space to send email addresses wherever they’d like?
By keeping this feature exclusive to Revue, Twitter can expect to earn more in revenue share from writers running paid subscription businesses on Revue, and maybe they will let writers insert ads sold by Twitter and split the revenue. But, realistically, I don’t think many writers who already run a paid subscription business elsewhere are going to switch just for this. And larger publications that run on custom software will of course not be able to participate, unless the Revue API integration to send emails elsewhere becomes a sort of weird industry standard. So the impact of the Revue-only version of this feature will be big, but won’t achieve ubiquity in the way that it could without that constraint.
If they keep this feature the way it is now, then Twitter will be using the power of their network to bolster Revue. But to me it makes more sense to invert this relationship; Twitter should use Revue to bolster the power of their network.
The most important thing Twitter needs to prioritize if they want to capture more of the value they create in the longform publishing market is simple: their network effect. The basis of all their power comes from the fact that readers are here because the writers are here, and writers are here because the readers are here. The bigger opportunity for Twitter isn’t to compete with Substack and Ghost. It’s to compete with Gmail.
Here’s how it could work: When you visit a Twitter account and press the shiny new “subscribe to newsletter” button, what if it gave you the option to receive new posts via DM? Or perhaps in a special module in your timeline? Or maybe in a new tab dedicated to article recommendations? I think a lot of readers would prefer to get less content in their inbox. Direct delivery via email is great when you have one or two favorite newsletters, but as readers keep signing up for more and more, they need better systems to filter and prioritize. Startups like Stoop have cropped up to solve this, but it’s tough to switch to a new email address for all your existing subscriptions. Gmail and Apple Mail are also working on newsletter-centric views, but Twitter’s algorithmic timeline expertise puts them in a much stronger position than Gmail to solve this.
The thing is, email has had a nice resurgence in the past few years, but I think it will ultimately get stuck in a suboptimal plateau that more centralized networks like Twitter can outperform. The root is the same problem every communication network runs into as it scales, which is that users tend to find it fun to take actions that cause more information to flow to them, but find it frustrating to filter out irrelevant information. Mass media companies solve this with tight editorial curation, and social networks solve this with algorithmic feeds. But email—a decentralized protocol with no central authority—is not in a good position to solve the problem. Sure, email services can build spam filters and priority inboxes, but there’s only so much they can do. They can’t recommend emails you didn’t get but might enjoy. They can’t know what emails are trending amongst users like you. They can’t easily detect the difference between highly-engaging content and an unwanted promotional email. Furthermore, we don’t want email to be designed like a feed we dip in and out of, because there’s often important stuff in there. I don’t read every tweet in my feed or listen to every episode in my podcast app, but I do at least glance at every email in my inbox. Finding something interesting to read is an entirely different class of information than a private message, but if we’re relying on email as the channel to deliver content, we’ve got to play by email’s rules.
This is why I suspect Twitter actually might allow other publishers besides those using Revue to integrate their content into their platform. Facebook has already tried a version of this with Instant Articles, which they have since rolled back. But I think the most important thing isn’t hosting the webpage (although that’s nice), but instead being the destination readers rely on to be notified of new content.
As a reader, I’d love this. As a strategy analyst, I think it’s smart. But as a writer/publisher, on the other hand, my feelings are mixed. I don’t really want Twitter to mediate the relationship between me and my readers. I’m not sure what it would take to convince me to allow people to subscribe via Twitter.
Actually, I am sure: it would take traffic. A crap ton of traffic. And I think Twitter can actually supply it.