With Twitter outlining its plan to remove ‘legacy’ verification checkmarks in the app this week – i.e. users that are not paying for a blue tick – it’s worth reflecting on Twitter chief Elon Musk’s plan for his revised subscription offering, which he sees as a means to address the company’s challenges with both bots and revenue in one fell swoop.
Which is unlikely, no matter how optimistic Musk might be about the program.
To recap, as part of his initial steps in his takeover at the app, Elon outlined his new vision for Twitter Blue, charging $8 for verification checkmarks in the app, something that many users have wanted access to for years.
Which makes some sense. In terms of straight supply and demand, Twitter can make a quick buck by selling blue ticks to people who want them, and many, many users do indeed want that mark of authority and credibility next to their tweets.
But the problem is that in selling them, you erode their only value, in that the blue tick is a marker of notability, and as soon as you make them buyable, by anyone, that’s gone out the window. And for every checkmark you sell, you degrade that value even further – it’s essentially a process that will eat itself over time, which will make it a much harder sell ongoing.
But there is, of course, more to it than that. Elon also sees paid verification as a means to tackle the platform’s bot problem, because spammers and scammers won’t be able to create massive networks of bots if they have to pay $8 per account to do it. That’s the secondary element – if Twitter can maximize subscription take-up, that will eventually force more users to have to buy a verification tick, or risk being viewed as a bot account. Eventually, at a critical mass, that will ideally mean that the only accounts remaining without a checkmark are bots, making it very easy to see who can and can’t be trusted in the app.
It’s a simple solution, which could solve the company’s two biggest problems.
The only problem is, most users are simply not going to pay $8 for a JPEG of a blue tick.
This is the element that Elon has seemingly over-estimated – in all of his exchanges and comments, Musk seems to be of the belief that he is exceedingly popular with the public, that he’s more in touch with the common person than other billionaires, and that his perspective reflects that of the everyday, common sense person.
But the stats don’t show that. Sure, Elon may be closing in on becoming the most followed person on Twitter, with almost 133 million followers, but follower count and real-world popularity are two different things, which is especially true when it comes to asking people to part with their hard-earned cash.
Elon’s early view was that subscriptions would, eventually, make up 50% of Twitter’s overall revenue intake. Based on Twitter’s performance reports before Elon took over, that would mean that he’s hoping that Twitter Blue will bring in around $590 million per quarter for the company. That would require around 24 million users signing up to pay Elon and Co. $8 per month for a blue tick.
At present, Twitter Blue, which is now available in all regions, has around 450,000 paying subscribers, based on analysis.
Twitter’s hoping to juice this with its new Verification for Organizations, which will see companies charged $1,000 for a special gold checkmark in the app, while the removal of ‘legacy’ checkmarks, as noted, will also, ideally, push a few of those users to also start paying up to keep their blue tick.
But those solutions likely won’t have a big impact either. Very few brands are likely to fork out $1,000 per month for virtually nothing more than a colored tick in the app, while there are currently only some 420k users that have a legacy blue tick.
But still, Elon believes this is the way forward.
Given that modern AI can solve any “prove you’re not a robot” tests, it’s now trivial to spin up 100k human-like bots for less than a penny per account.
Paid verification increases bot cost by ~10,000% & makes it much easier to identify bots by phone & CC clustering.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 27, 2023
Despite the low take-up for Twitter Blue, Musk’s view is that paid social media will eventually be ‘the only social media that matters’.
Which is basically a slap in the face for anyone who can’t afford it – like, say, users in developing regions, which make up an increasingly large chunk of Twitter’s user base. But also, as with Twitter’s Verification for Organizations plan, it drastically overrates the value that people might actually glean from such – a value which, as noted, is being eroded by the very process of selling the thing that you’re asking people to pay for.
But it seems that this remains a key cog in Elon’s broader ‘Twitter 2.0’ plan.
Last week, in a meeting with staff, Musk said that he sees a ‘clear but difficult path’ to Twitter reaching a $250 billion valuation in future. Applying basic valuation math, that would suggest that Musk envisions Twitter bringing in around $62b per year sometime soon.
At present, in 2023, Twitter is on track to bring in around $3 billion in revenue, a significant drop on last year, as the company works to convince advertisers to come back, following Musk’s takeover and the broader economic downturn.
Given Musk’s statement above, he clearly sees subscriptions being a key part of ramping up its earnings.
If he sticking with the 50% target for subscriptions, that would mean that Musk is eventually aiming to have 968 million people sign-up for Twitter Blue. Twitter currently has 253 million active users, total.
Theoretically, it’s not impossible, and Musk is no stranger to being doubted, and making things happen despite those doubts. But that’s a very steep hill to climb, with comparatively fewer resources than other apps, and much less than Twitter itself has ever had before.
Can Musk add in new features and elements that will bring more people to the app, and people who will to pay for it, in line with his vision – or has Musk overestimated his appeal, and miscalculated this element?
We’ll find out soon, with the next stage of Musk’s subscription push – the removal of legacy blue ticks – happening this week.