Even if Twitter can't seem to kill the fail whale -- maybe its engineers could be used to save animals out at that oil spill, come to think of it -- it's still swimming in the right direction with its continuing attempts to build viable revenue streams. The latest is the @earlybird Twitter account, which shows that while monetizing Twitter in an organic way is harder than it has been for Google, it shouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out, either. As is so often the case, the best ideas are the simplest.
Here's the lowdown on how @earlybird works: if you follow the @earlybird account (which is at more than 15,000 followers at this writing), you will get tweets about exclusive deals from Twitter's (as yet unnamed) advertising partners. You can also retweet, follow and unfollow the account to your heart's delight. In other words, from a consumer perspective, it works just like any other Twitter account.
It appears from @earlybird's FAQ page that Twitter is working closely with the advertisers to make the offers in keeping with the service itself -- but while Twitter is making money off of this, it's not precisely clear how. The company will only say that it will "earn revenue through our relationships with advertisers."
That's almost all there is to know, but you can read more here.
One of the things I like about @earlybird is that it gets Twitter in on the burgeoning cheap deals game (see Woot) in a way that is natural to the Twitter environment and will work across all Twitter clients. While an account like @cheaptweet aggregates deals from all over the Web, @earlybird deals are exclusive only to Twitter users; it also plans to actively solicit ideas for deals from the community. Maybe that's merely giving lip service to the community since, to most of us, a great promotional idea is Oprah giving away several hundred Pontiacs. On the other hand, as that Oprah giveaway did, a crazy consumer-generated idea or two could create great buzz for the program, the advertiser -- and for Twitter.
But the other big plus about @earlybird is that Twitter is finding a way to make money off activity that already exists on Twitter -- as well it should. I'm reminded of JetBlue's "All You Can Jet" program last year, which allowed people to buy unlimited travel on the airline for one month. JetBlue went to its Twitter accounts to spread the news, and the rest is history. The deal was so attention-grabbing it went viral, and JetBlue sold out seats earlier than expected -- at infinitesimal cost because it never had to advertise. If that were re-created on @earlybird, it wouldn't be quite as good a deal for JetBlue since it would have to pay Twitter -- but, frankly, Twitter deserves more than a few headlines about what a great distribution channel it can be. It deserves a cut.
Make no mistake -- @earlybird is not Twitter's silver bullet. My sense is it probably doesn't have one, or we would have found it already. However, it's proof that Twitter's model may be a bunch of models, as long as they are simple, interesting and take advantage of the service's best qualities, while respecting them at the same time.