Twitter over SMS back in Canada … but will those Tweets cost you?

There was a time when all Canadians could freely send and receive tweets via a text message on their mobile phone. But no longer.

For a while, the service was absent completely. But now Bell Mobility has brought it back for their customers, and Twitter hopes to work with all Canadian carriers to return the service to its former glory.

Kevin Thau is director of mobile business development at Twitter, the micro-blogging service that’s risen in popularity over the past year. Between travelling around the world to extend Twitter’s SMS reach to various countries, he found some time to speak with ITBusiness.ca.

In this interview, he discusses the partnership with Bell, why Twitter couldn’t continue to offer SMS services as before, why tweets shouldn’t cost users15 cents a pop, and how mobile phones will help Twitter make money.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

You’ve been travelling across Europe to forge similar partnerships to the one with Bell to deliver Twitter via SMS. How is that effort going?

We’re very interested in providing people with the ability to send and receive Twitter messages over SMS because it is one of the most ubiquitous technologies. So we want to support it however we can.

I’ve been talking to all the carriers about how Twitter might fit into their mobile messaging and data services. We don’t believe Twitter is going to cannibalize any existing form of communication, but it’s a new messaging format because of its one-to-many broadcast nature.

Existing forms of messaging — e-mail, IM, SMS — are great and have their own right place and time. You probably use all three in your life — there’s a right time for an e-mail, a right time for an IM session, and a right time for sending an SMS.

We believe there is also a right place and time to Twitter. The example I always give is if you’re standing on the Hudson River ferry and a plane lands in the river — that’s a perfect time to Twitter.

If there’s something happening in real time and you’re broadcasting out to the Twitter network, people who follow you can find that. It’s an interesting dimension to messaging.

A lot of people point to news articles on Twitter, what does that say about the service?

People use Twitter to share things. Whether it’s an interesting article you’ve read, an opinion you have, or you’re experiencing something first hand. Links are very commonly included in Tweets, to articles or pointing to a picture you’ve taken.

Quite a few media organizations connect their RSS feeds to Twitter. It’s essentially a way of obtaining information from people you know or don’t know, companies you like, brands, media organizations you’re interested in. It takes all kinds of different forms.

Twitter used to offer full SMS service to all Candians, why can’t that be done any more and why is the deal with Bell necessary?

There are standard models in place of how companies connect to carrier SMS networks. It’s typically done through an aggregator, and some sort of business arrangement is involved. We’re starting to do business directly with carriers so we can have a close relationship with them.

We think we’re going to be a growing an important part of their data messaging business — we can help carriers drive their business and they can help us drive ours.

Most people do go through a third-party aggregator that makes it easy for companies to set up SMS services and takes some of the burden off the carrier, so you don’t have thousands of companies phoning the carrier to set up an SMS service for them. That’s the role they serve. That’s the standard model out there. We’re trying to form a direct relationship because we think we’re worth having a direct conversation with, because of the complementary nature of the services.

Why not just use smartphone applications to deliver your service to mobile phones?

We’re trying to cover all of the access methods. More than 2,000 Twitter developers write to our API (application programming interface), so we love all the clients out there for every type of phone, Macs and PCs.

But we also love SMS because of its ubiquity. It’s not emphasizing one over the other. We used to support SMS in the U.S., Europe and Canada. But we had to turn off Europe and Canada because of our costs. We were paying for the messages we were delivering and that just wasn’t a sustainable business model.

It’s not that the company we were using was doing anything bad. It’s just the way those relationships typically worked. A company like us signs up with a third-party aggregator and then we pay them to send SMS messages. Those costs were getting prohibitive, so we turned the service off in Europe and Canada. That’s why we’re now talking directly to the carrier so we can turn it back on.

Typically, these aggregators handle many companies who deliver a moderate number of messages, so the relationship works out fine. But if you’re Twitter and a messaging-centric service, once we start reaching certain thresholds, it’s a real cost to that third party aggregator and we have to look for ways to manage those costs.  

Bell had said they were going to charge 15cents per tweet at first, and now they’re saying it will be covered by a test message bundle. What was the miscommunication between Bell and Twitter here?

I don’t really want to comment on any misunderstanding. The important thing is users are getting the service the way they wanted and expected to get. If you have a bundle, then the messages are included in the bundle. If you don’t have a bundle, you have to pay standard text message rates.

Do you think Bell didn’t fully understand how people use Twitter?

No. I don’t really want to get into that. The result is the service is back on thanks to Bell, and they are a great partner. Users are happy, so all is well. We’re not going to comment on any disconnects or anything. We worked with Bell to make sure end users are getting what they expected.

Certainly any Twitter user would expect to not pay for each SMS tweet they receive. Can you imagine how quickly your phone bill would inflate if this was the case?

We think the right model for using Twitter over SMS is to have it included in the SMS plan you pay for. If you don’t have a plan, then you pay per message. But if you do have a plan, Twitter should count against that plan. That’s how we think it should work and that’s what we’re doing with Bell, so everyone should be happy.

It’s the model we’re pursuing everywhere. As you dig into this business, you’ll find that sometimes costs are different at different places in the world. But definitely the goal is Twitter over SMS will not be a premium charge. We don’t think it makes sense to charge per individual message. It could create a negative user experience if they got a pretty big bill.

Some places in the world don’t have the high penetration of post-paid plans. Instead they have a high percentage of pre-paid subscribers. You and I are used to the notion of a bundle. But there are places in the world where bundles don’t exist. You just fill up your phone with money and decrement it from there.

A lot of social media watchers have been wondering how Twitter plans to make money. Does the mobile picture fit into that money-making plan?

Our overall plan right now – and it’s no different with mobile, the Web, with APIs – is to focus on growth and value. Growth is how we get more people using Twitter, and value is what convenient features or offerings we provide to make it easier to use.

Mobile strategy actually covers both of those. It’s a great customer growth channel because carriers have relationships with subscribers and it’s a way to get our service in front of subscribers. But SMS gives value to people as well.

The interesting thing about SMS is people like to use Twitter over SMS for convenience and for being alerted about a subset of people they follow, that these are the ones they have to know about when they Twitter. The way SMS communications work on Twitter is you can toggle them on or off per person you follow. I might follow 100 people, but then I follow 10 via SMS because I really want to know every time they Twitter.

But are you making money off this deal or not?

No, it’s not a revenue deal. The goal of our mobile strategy allows us to focus on growth and value.

Do you see an advertising opportunity with SMS?

To be determined. How the mobile services evolve, we don’t know yet. We’re more focused on getting the places that have been turned off turned on again.

Will you be pursuing partnerships with other carriers in Canada?

Absolutely yes. The goal is to get all carriers turned on.

We’ve had communications with all the carriers, and talked to a large number of carriers around the world. We’re lucky right now that thanks to increasing press interest, people want to talk to us.

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