Cate Bonacini is a self-described Twitter super user. Bonacini runs communications for the Center for International Environmental Law, so she likes to keep up with journalists talking about climate on the platform. When Twitter launched a subscription service, Twitter Blue, Bonacini thought that would help her stay on top of the news. She subscribed.
Twitter Blue debuted last June and offers Twitter faithfuls the ability to undo tweets and read ad-free articles for $2.99 a month. Bonacini said the service improved her Twitter experience in some ways, letting her more easily read long Twitter threads with the subscription’s reader mode. The ability to undo a tweet before it’s posted gives her a few extra seconds to catch a typo. She likes the bookmarking feature, which allows her to add posts to a folder.
But she said Twitter Blue hasn’t improved her experience enough to make the subscription worthwhile. She already subscribes to most of the news outlets that offer ad-free articles on the platform. Bonacini also thinks reader mode should be free, especially because it helps people with visual impairments.
“I don't see a huge reason for me to continue using Twitter Blue,” Bonacini told Protocol. “It's just a matter of when I want to cancel the subscription.”
Twitter Blue’s hard sell
Twitter offers three paid features: Twitter Blue, Ticketed Spaces and Super Follows. The latter two are still in beta, while Twitter Blue rolled out in the United States in November after it was first tested in a couple of other countries. Twitter Blue gives paying users a slew of tools, including the ability to undo tweets and read ad-free articles from a handful of publications. Ticketed Spaces charges for live events on Twitter’s Clubhouse-like audio rooms, called Spaces, and Super Follows let creators charge to see subscriber-only content (like … tweets that cost money).
But paid features are proving to be a hard sell for Twitter. Sensor Tower data shared with Protocol revealed that Twitter Blue is the company’s top in-app purchase ahead of Ticketed Spaces. But since September, worldwide spending on Twitter’s mobile app has only reached $2 million. For a platform with millions of users, $2 million is just … not a lot.
Twitter loves to experiment with new features that might not actually go anywhere. (Remember Fleets?) But to entice people to pay to use Twitter, experts say the company — as well as other social media platforms that offer subscriptions — needs to figure out the one feature people would actually pay for, then slowly add in other perks.
“The basic issue is that people got Twitter for free. You can't change that,” said Andrew Hutchinson, a content and social media manager at Social Media Today. “Now, you can't sort of go back and say, ‘Oh, now you want to pay for it.’”
Social media subscription experiments
Twitter isn’t the only social media platform trying to figure out how to diversify beyond ad revenue. Some platforms’ subscription services focus on exclusive access to creators, some focus on removing ads and some are trying a mix of both. Most platforms, with the exception of YouTube, are still in the early stages of their paid services.
Instagram and TikTok began exploring creator subscriptions in January. On Instagram, subscribers pay a monthly fee ranging from $0.99 to $99.99 to access exclusive content from creators, and they receive a purple badge on their profile to indicate they’re a subscriber. Meta has said won’t take a cut from subscriptions until next year “at the earliest.” TikTok’s subscription test is light on details. The company confirmed in January that it’s trying out paid subscriptions that will let creators charge for their content, but it’s unclear how many creators are involved in the pilot and how they might be paid. Spokespeople for TikTok and Instagram declined to share how many subscribers the platforms have attracted since their tests started.
A Twitter spokesperson also declined to provide details on its subscription services. “Our teams are continually gathering feedback for these experiences and enhancing the features,” the spokesperson said.
YouTube has seen success with its subscriptions. For $11.99 a month, YouTube Premium users get access to YouTube Music and the ability to watch videos ad-free or in the background while their phone is locked or they’re using another app. About 50 million people have subscribed to or tried out Premium and YouTube Music as of last September.
Will Aldrich, a director of Product Management at YouTube who focuses on Premium, said the platform isn’t ready to share the latest subscriber count, but the service continues to grow “at an amazing rate.” “We've been thrilled at the continued growth rate, for both our ad-supported business and our premium subscription offerings,” Aldrich told Protocol.
How social media subscriptions can succeed
If social media platforms, which have historically been free, are going to attract paying subscribers, social media analysts said they’ll need to highlight one main tool to entice users, and slowly tack on more perks. Platforms have gone years without asking people to pay, so that one marquee feature has to be good.
That philosophy has helped drive YouTube Premium’s success. Aldrich said the platform wants to feel seamless for paying YouTube subscribers first and foremost by removing ads and allowing people to switch apps without shutting off their video. The other add-ons, like exclusive livestreams with artists, are just that: add-ons.
“I think a sustainable subscription business that really lasts for the long term is going to have a really thoughtful blend of having no ads — this universal simple appeal, convenience kind of features,” he said. “And then pair that with thoughtful exclusivity.”
Hutchinson said there's an opportunity for Twitter to look at third-party analytics and insights tools, like Hootsuite and Buffer, and wrap those features into a subscription targeted at businesses. The platform is reportedly looking to make one of those tools, TweetDeck, part of the subscription service. Hutchinson said providing businesses with the analytics tools and insights they pay for off the platform could bring in a consistent base of subscribers — even if it’s small.
“Twitter could enhance its value if they created a business tier,” he said.
Scriberbase founder Adam Levinter, author of “The Subscription Boom,” said it’s still too soon to say whether Twitter Blue and the platform’s other services will succeed. He said Twitter is treating the services as experiments, and it’ll likely continue to tinker with them down the line.
“The first version of this subscription program isn't likely to be the last version of what they go with in the market,” Levinter told Protocol.
He added that Twitter should look to its conversion rate from average to paying users as a measure of success. “It remains to be seen actually what that conversion rate is going to be,” he said. “But that's really going to drive the scale of this.”
The fate of Twitter Blue hinges on the company’s soon-to-be-owner, Elon Musk, who wants to move beyond advertising and find new ways to monetize tweets. Musk suggested to banks who provided financing for his Twitter acquisition that the platform may start charging third-party websites that want to quote or embed tweets, for instance. In since-deleted tweets, Musk suggested that Twitter Blue could also charge for one huge perk: a verified checkmark. For some, that might be the marquee feature worth subscribing for.
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