Should Twitter Charge the 1%?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- As investors build their idea of Twitter's current and expected valuation, few appear to believe the 230 million member micro-blogging site would ever go to a subscription model.

Currently, Twitter is being valued on the revenue it earns from a narrow set of advertising services it offers to prospective marketers. Twitter offers paid promoted Tweets. It is trying to enter TV advertising markets by catering to traditional cable and broadcast media content.

The company also licenses data it collects from interactions on its network, in a business some analysts say is similar to the "big data" analytics operations of more established tech players like Google (GOOG) and IBM (IBM).

However, there is little talk of San Francisco-based Twitter charging users to access its platform.

Twitter, after all, has championed free speech in recent uprisings across the world. The company can also be relied upon as a crucial element of disaster response when tragedy strikes and it offers each of its users a new voice in internet communication.

Charging people would appear to be antithetical to Twitter's motives and its appeal.

I am not so sure.

No options are completely off the table after the company sells its shares to stock investors, in an initial public offering that will offer the company's shares at a range of $23 to $25 a share and could value the burgeoning media and technology powerhouse in excess of $13 billion.

Simply put, some people benefit from Twitter more than others.

While the vast majority of Twitter users toil in obscurity and are likely to experience the network as a feed of updates and posts from people they follow, the Twitter elite do generate tangible benefits.

Currently, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, President Barack Obama and Taylor Swift own the most followed Twitter handles, each with over 35 million followers, according to Twitaholic. For the likes of Perry, Gaga and "The Biebs," their handles can be used to promote concerts, new albums and live events that generate real money.

Kim Kardashian, for instance, is reportedly paid thousands of dollars for some Tweets. Ad.ly, a startup backed by venture capitalists like Greycroft Partners, offers a service to give advertises as prominent Coca Cola (KO) and AT&T (T) access to the followers of celebrity Twitter handles, albeit for a fee.

Sports stars are able to build their brands using Twitter handles, media organizations, TheStreet included, are working to drive traffic through their Twitter presence.

Politicians as prominent as President Barack Obama use Twitter to drive social campaigns and votes.

The list goes on.

In a world where the 1% and even the 0.1% have generated most of the income gains since the Great Recession, it is no surprise that the elite would also generate the biggest gains from Twitter. The question is whether Twitter will consider monetizing the benefits the platform provides to its biggest users, given how much they receive from the free platform.

On the surface, charging Twitter's elite may sound like an argument intended to incite enthusiasts of the platform. In reality, the company will face big tradeoffs on what it is willing to do to generate revenue and eventually earnings to justify its valuation.

If Twitter isn't willing to charge any users for their handles, the company is likely to redouble efforts on promoted Tweets and data licensing both in the U.S. and internationally. Those platform costs are more likely to be borne by the masses.

Promoted Tweets are more targeted at the anonymous Twitter user than social media luminaries like Katy Perry.

"People are at the heart of Twitter. We have more than 230 million MAUs from around the world. People come to Twitter for many reasons, and we believe that two of the most significant are the breadth of Twitter content and our broad reach. Our users consume content and engage in conversations that interest them by discovering and following the people and organizations they find most compelling. Our broad reach allows our users to express themselves publicly to a large global audience, and participate in global conversations," the company states when defining its value proposition to users.

There is no doubt that Twitter is a pioneering and valuable platform for media, entertainment and news consumption. Even anonymous users benefit from the content that is put out on the platform and for access to compelling figures on the social network.

It is less clear, however, that Twitter allows the ordinary user to "express themselves publicly" or "participate in global conversations."

If Twitter shows signs of falling short on user growth or user engagement, it might signal to investors that the ordinary Twitter user or the median user account has lost interest or is not really that engaged.

Nowhere in Twitter's IPO documents do they disclose the engagement of the average account. How many followers do Jane and Joe Public have? How many retweets do they get? How many conversations do they truly participate in?

These seem to be the central issues that Twitter still has to prove, as the social network tries to take on larger competitors such as Facebook (FB).

Facebook may not need to charge user accounts because the average user still derives benefits from maintaining connections to their real-life networks of friends, co-workers and school-mates.

Twitter, however, markets itself as offering more to users. If the company shows signs it is falling short on those promises, it may want to reconsider who is benefitting from the service.

Clearly there is an opportunity for Twitter to drive revenue from its 1% or its 0.1% if the company finds itself hamstrung to prove its value to the 99%.

-- Written by Antoine Gara in New York

Follow @antoinegara

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