Twitter Could Make Money By Charging Per Follower

It’s probably not a new idea, but amidst its rising popularity, and increasing speculation that Twitter might charge commercial users, I wonder if charging business users on a per-follower basis might be one way the service could make money.

In the world of print, advertisers are charged on the basis of impressions, usually expressed in CPM (cost per thousand). It costs more to advertise in Wired than it does in Model Railroader. (No offense to model railroaders.)

But wait, you say. Isn’t everything online free? (Of course not, but thank you for asking.) Online advertisers pay Google AdWords based on the popularity of the term and on the number of clicks, measures which represent the number of people who have opted (agreed) to view the advertising content. (The term social media, for example, costs $2.28 per click. Save money by buying three word terms like social media marketing and social media PR for just $.05.)

In other words, marketers have tacitly agreed that they are willing to pay based on cost per impression. When someone follows a company like Southwest Airlines, Zappos, or Dell, that represents something equal to a click, and in fact, may be more valuable, as it indicates agreement to view multiple, ongoing advertising messages from the company.

This proposal raises a number of issues of course. What is commercial use? Clearly a Fortune 500 company promoting its goods and services is engaged in commercial activity. So, too is a crafts person with an Etsy account or a real estate agent, but they don’t stand to achieve the same commercial advantage as the larger corporation. This seems inequitable, although, to be fair, they would pay Google AdWords the same dollar amount for the same words and clicks.

Non-profits, schools, public safety, public health organizations and many other classes of users are non-commercial and should not be charged based on their follower count (and no one is saying Twitter plans to charge them.)

But the intensity with which Twitter users pursue any and every strategy to grow their follower count, including offering expensive prizes like laptops to attract new followers, demonstrates recognition of the value of a large number of followers.

The question is, how many will continue to recognize this value when they are asked to pay for it?