The world's most popular microblog has joined the ranks of tech industry heavyweights betting that the smartphone is the new wallet.
Twitter Inc. announced on Monday it is rolling out a new service called a "Buy Button" that will allow users to buy and sell products directly within individual tweets. If successful, the buy button could transform Twitter into a sprawling online bazaar, putting it in direct competition with mobile commerce heavyweights such as Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.
"I think this is a strong validation of where we think commerce is going to take place going forward," said Sahil Lavingia, chief executive officer of Gumroad, a startup that facilitates commercial transactions between users over social media, and one of Twitter's partner companies on the buy button project. "Selling should be as easy as sharing."
Twitter's push into mobile commerce is the latest indicator that the tech industry's biggest names expect smartphones and tablets to be the primary shopping platforms in coming years. Later this week, Apple is widely expected to introduce its own mobile commerce innovation, a means for iPhone users to make purchases at some retail locations simply by swiping their smartphones.
The idea for the buy button grew out of a previous Twitter innovation called the Product Card. A Product Card allows users to include a short fact sheet about a product or service (consisting of a picture and a short description, for example) inside a tweet. The cards were a hit with many businesses, and soon those businesses asked for the next logical addition – an in-tweet buy button to allow consumers to purchase the products and services described in the cards.
Twitter will roll out its new service slowly, starting with "a small percentage" of U.S.-based users, the company said. At launch, the microblog has 28 partners – including brands such as Burberry and musicians such as Eminem and Death From Above 1979 – who will be on the selling end of the service.
Because of the fluid nature of Twitter's interface, the buy button will likely work better for some products than others. For example, Mr. Lavingia says the service is perfectly suited for time-sensitive offers such as limited edition artist T-shirts or concert tickets.
For Twitter, the buy button is the latest step in a more overarching reimagination of the microblog itself. Combined with so-called "Sponsored Tweets" that show up in users' timelines regardless of whether they follow the tweet's author, the buy button further shifts the Twitter newsfeed from a purely chronological, user-determined experience to something more transactional. In the process, the shift opens for Twitter a new and potentially lucrative revenue source. The company's Retail partners also benefit – not only from access to a brand-new marketplace, but to instantaneous, analytical sales data so granular that even giants such as Amazon may not be able to match it.
The shift to a more purchase-driven user experience is not without risks for Twitter – its users have largely become accustomed to a relatively interference-free, information-based news stream, and some may balk at a more shopping mall-like experience.
But as more and more consumers become comfortable with making online purchases, the potential payoff from facilitating those purchases increases.
"Much like online banking and ATMs, I anticipate in the next 10 years or so we're going to see a massive shift where customers are going to be driving the bus themselves," said Jason Strashek, CEO of Avanti Commerce, a Vancouver-based startup whose mobile technology allows users to remotely order and pay for meals at some 27,000 fast-food restaurant locations. "It's going to be up to the customer to engage with brands directly and make those purchases when and wherever they want to."