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Should Your NonProfit Charge for Twitter Content?

Lori Halley 08 June 2009 10 comments

Super Chirp , a service that lets Twitter users earn money from private “premium tweets” to paying subscribers launched yesterday. At first glance, it's an interesting idea for non-profits with avid supporters who might be willing to “donate” for access to special content — but will Super Chirp fly? And if so, could it be a good fit for your non-profit?

It's been a couple years in the making, apparently, but Super Chirp is not an entirely new concept.

Back in mid-April, TwitPub floated a very similar “marketplace to buy and sell premium tweets.”  A few days in, @twitpuber reported “decent growth so far in terms of memberships… planning on some promotions in the pipeline and help publishers in other areas as well.”  The website is still up and presumably working, but it's been more than 6 weeks since the last update on its official Twitter account.

If TwitPub slipped under your radar (as it did mine), perhaps it's because there really wasn't much buzz about it online, apart from rather lukewarm reviews by Ed Oswald at VentureBeat and Rafe Needleman on CNet:

I’m having a hard time seeing the value here. It all sounds an awful lot like those premium text messaging services you see advertised on TV (you know, “Get daily horoscopes sent to your phone free!”) or that you can subscribe to through services like Frengo. And I’m not sure TwitPub’s business model will hold water. There are already Twitter users out there doing for free what TwitPub aims to charge for… ~ Ed Oswald

On Twitter as elsewhere on the Internet, there is so much great content available for nothing. And for the truly critical information that I would pay for, the medium is not important. If I’m signing up for some kind of major financial or business alert, I want it to find me wherever I am — email, IM, phone, Twitter, everywhere. TwitPub doesn’t reach that far. In other words, for frothy, fun content it’s too expensive, and for important information it’s not rich enough. ~ Rafe Needleman

TwitPub's slow take-off doesn't look like a promising outlook for Super Chirp, does it? The two services are enough alike, one has to wonder whether Twitter users are any more ready to embrace paid content now, with Super Chirp, than they were two months ago with TwitPub.

But then, two months can be a very long time in the rapid-changing world of social media...

Super Chirp does have a headstart in the credibility stakes as it comes from 83 degrees, the small software company whose notable products include the customer service portal GetSatisfaction and 30 Boxes online calendar, among other success stories.

At 83 Degrees, we are no strangers to building businesses around “premium content.” In 2002, we created the first large scale user generated content site that had a successful “freemium” model — Webshots. At the time, the only other large content sites that made money with subscriptions were the WSJ Online and ESPN.com. We got close to 250,000 paying subscribers and learned a lot about the whole process.

Michael Arrington of Techcrunch suggests that Twitter itself might be the deciding factor in whether Super Chirp will fly:

“If Twitter launches something like this directly, Super Chirp could become irrelevant quickly," he warns. "Although, if I were running Twitter and Super Chirp got traction, I’d buy the service and port over the publishers and paying users to keep it all going.”

There is certainly a strong appetite for ways to “monetize” Twitter. Any successful platform, making it pay is the obvious next step. And for non-profits, an effective method of fundraising on Twitter could mean a bit more: a rising balance in your PayPal account can demonstrate a tangible return on the time your staff and volunteers put into social media, always helpful when it comes to accounting to a sceptical board. 

But are “premium tweets” a fundraising gold mine?

Do the math: Premium subscribers pay between $0.99 and $9.99 per month — you set the price — of which Super Chirp takes a 30% cut, and the usual PayPal fees will also apply.  Unless your organization has a hefty following on Twitter — and unless your  followers are motivated to pay well for the content you’re delivering in 140-character bursts — it seems to me that the financial return to a non-profit organization is unlikely to be life-changing.

And for non-profits, there’s the very real risk of alienating your supporters by shutting out those who are unwilling or unable to pay for a premium subscription. While “exclusivity” is a great sales tool for country clubs and designer boutiques, non-profits are normally much more focussed on spreading their message as widely as possible.

That said, I do think Super Chirp could fly.

It’s a dream set-up for Internet  marketing “gurus,” adult websites, shopping channels, celebrities and celebrity gossip magazines, maybe even the mainstream media outlets… Any of these businesses could profitably use the service to send their premium subscribers a coupon code for a special discount, for example, or links to restricted-access web pages.

But will it fly for non-profits?

Let’s brainstorm!
How could Super Chirp — or premium content by any other delivery channel, for that matter — be made to work for your non-profit organization?

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Monday, 08 June 2009 at 5:38 PM


  • Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot] Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot]

    Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot] said:

    Monday, 08 June 2009 at 10:38 AM

    My first reaction is that people are so used to free content on the web that SuperChirp will have hard time building this up. I can see this useful in some niches- but whether it will be enough to sustain the product, remains to be seen.

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Monday, 08 June 2009 at 10:55 AM

    I suspect the multi-level marketers might be enough to float it, if enough of them see the potential - but the premium tweets would have to be links to richer content: it's hard to see how 140 characters could carry enough value, otherwise.

    For non-profits, I do think the "closed door" risk is considerable - but it just occurred to me now that premium tweets could be a bonus added on to membership in an organization. Followers might not be willing to pay directly for access to premium content, but there might be a way to add value to existing memberships through this or a similar model.

    But then, members would have to be on Twitter to benefit, and that fragments your audience without a really good reason...

    @sull made an interesting point on Twitter last night as part of a longer discourse about Super Chirp:

    "i might as well setup a page outside of twitter to hold my 'exclusive content' and let users 'subscribe' to get access and use a paypal etc."

    Funny how often it comes back to a strategy of putting the most valuable stuff on your own website and bringing folks from the social media "outposts" back to your "home base"!

  • Sue Anne said:

    Monday, 08 June 2009 at 11:59 AM

    I think the risk of alienating your donors outweighs any money that a non-profit might bring in.

    And, especially if you are trying to use social media as a gateway first step in getting a potential donor into your pipeline, your shutting the door in their face from the get go.


  • Jeff Stern said:

    Monday, 08 June 2009 at 12:15 PM

    The Brooklyn Museum has a paid-subscriber only twitter account for their 1stFans program - a membership program for people who may be online fans, but rarely (if ever) get a chance to visit the museum itself.  As you'll see in the comments, I was a bit skeptical, but it seems that they are providing valuable content and they do seem to be serving a niche of fans/supporters who wouldn't otherwise become members.  More here: http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere/bloggers/2008/12/05/introducing-1stfans-a-socially-networked-museum-membership/

    As for SuperChirp, I don't know that many nonprofits will see the value in an outside service, as per your comment Rebecca.

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Monday, 08 June 2009 at 12:31 PM

    Jeff, that's an interesting coincidence! When I was trying to think of various types of non-profits and how they might use "premium" content, museums were the first thing to come to mind. Museums are often right up there among the non-profits at the forefront of creative tech use - have you noticed that?

    Great inspiration from Brooklyn Museum!

    "1stfans Membership is an interactive relationship with the Museum that will happen in the building and online. We call it a “socially networked” Museum Membership, but what does that mean? The word has two meanings, which is why we picked it: it means developing face-to-face relationship with Museum staff and other Museum Members (literal social networking), and a strong, exclusive online relationship through social networking sites (you know them as Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter)."

  • Jeff Stern said:

    Monday, 08 June 2009 at 1:24 PM

    I know that we try to be!  I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that by our nature we see infrastructure investments as mission-critical, as opposed to more traditional direct-service organizations.  Our own success wouldn't have happened without an IMLS grant that funds my colleague @10ch - see her success in the last year at pushing us to be more creative and webby in this presentation: http://useum.tumblr.com/post/113931651/museum-of-life-and-science-state-of-the-web-a

  • Nancy Iannone said:

    Monday, 08 June 2009 at 7:07 PM

    I've been thinking about this today and could see the idea of offering premium content as part of a membership.  The museum idea does have possibilities.  In a human service organization I wondered if donors could be more engaged by offering "a day in the life" kinds of content.  Tweets from programs linked to videos, surveys, updates to give an inside feel for the organization. Just a thought!

  • Judith Lindenau said:

    Tuesday, 09 June 2009 at 5:22 AM

    At first blush, I saw the micro-payment idea as a real turn-off to donors and friends.  I still think the scheme has that potential.  However, I like the idea of offering premium content as a part of a membership package (creates community, and a consistent following.)  I think there may be some opportunity, too, for specialized information Twitter streams--I am thinking of research discoveries or economic information that's delivered in very timely tweets, perhaps with links to a more detailed source.  The key would be in developing the content product and implementing a mechanism which would convey the content in a consistent, timely, and lively fashion.

  • John Haydon said:

    Tuesday, 09 June 2009 at 5:47 AM

    The only way this could work is if:

    1) Non-profits can hand pick the "premium tweets" based on careful consideration of their constituency and brand.

    2) Board members can aintain a rock-hard ethical stance that is unswayed by large amounts of money.

  • Will Cary said:

    Tuesday, 09 June 2009 at 8:31 AM

    Hi All,

    I'll just chime in here since I run the 1stfans program at the Brooklyn Museum with our Chief of Technology, Shelley Bernstein.

    Just to tie up a few loose ends:

    @Rebecca and @Sue_Ann: Shelley and I both blogged about the "closed door" factor you mentioned. You can read my post here: http://tinyurl.com/875cpf and Shelley's post here: http://tinyurl.com/8bj9st

    Also, it's worth noting that 1stfans also includes Members-only updates via flickr, facebook, or even just email. It's that a la carte aspect to the online benefits of this Membership that make it so we AREN'T fragmenting our Members unnecessarily. Some 1stfans just love the twitter updates, some are big photographers who are mostly on flickr, and some use a combination of the 3.

    Finally, in response to Jeff's comment, I'd like to note that we have 1stfans meetup at the Museum every month as part of our free First Saturdays program. Those meetups are exclusive events just for 1stfans, and they give us a way to tie what we do online into what goes on in the building. We try, whenever possible, to tie everything we do to the physical building and collection. To say that we're catering to people who rarely visit the Museum is inaccurate, even though I know he meant well!

    The point is, there's a similiar a la carte aspect to the in-person meetups, since some people live far-away and just join for the online benefits, and some live close to the Museum and love that they can have something exclusive to do at First Saturday.

    -Will (@willcary)

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