What’s Driving Twitter’s API Changes?
Richard Mooney

All right, a show of hands: who was really surprised by the news from Twitter HQ last month regarding its API update? Since Twitter’s birth, the industry has been debating whether it would be able to cut it in the big leagues and stick around for the ninth inning. Sure, at first it made sense for Twitter to tone down its “business feel” as it looked to leverage the burgeoning developer (and user) community to help develop its offering and spread the word of its success. Of course, keeping on good terms with the community has also helped it continue to navigate potentially catastrophic server outages as demand in the service grows. But the day was always going to come when Twitter had to grow up and take serious steps to control the wider Twittersphere and manage its profitability more closely.

Two of the key changes announced by Twitter’s Michael Sippey last month were the introduction of more restrictive per-endpoint rate limits, which govern the number of data requests any application can make to Twitter, and the rule that all API requests must be authenticated going forward. Without a doubt, one of the key drivers of Twitter’s long-term success will be ensuring that brands understand the marketing opportunities the platform offers. Of course, those brands already using the platform understand the value that it can drive. In fact, we’ve proven time and again with our clients that it can deliver an ROI above and beyond a lot of other channels if used in the most appropriate way, and for the most appropriate objectives.

However, many brands are still anxious. Sippey suggested in the announcement that Twitter hopes that by changing the API rules it will move developers’ attention away from the API-hungry consumer-centric applications that effectively clone Twitter’s core functionality and instead focus its energy towards creating business-centric applications—applications that Twitter hopes will help brands understand and target their prospects within the Twitter ecosystem and measure the value that such activity creates.While this may be the main reason behind these changes, by implementing them, Twitter is also giving itself the opportunity to monetize every single tweet going forward.

The introduction of authentication effectively eradicates blind spots in its ecosystem, ensuring every request is addressable and recordable. Combine this with the introduction of rate limits and Twitter now has the means—and a reason—to get involved with the most successful projects that leverage Twitter data, facilitating a cut of the value generated at the point of user interaction rather than being diminished to a value-generating data service provider. Of course, this model is already widely used; for example, brands that wish to make more than 2,500 Google Map requests in any one day must secure a license from Google. In this new Twitterverse it would be important for brands to take the time to understand the value that the data adds to their proposition through effective test and learn strategies, so that they can gauge the true ROI it drives.

Sippey also unveiled modifications to Twitter’s display guidelines, referring to them for the first time as “requirements.” These requirements will govern how Tweet and Author metadata is displayed on third-party sites. They will also require the implementation of actions alongside each Tweet to allow people to reply, retweet and favorite, exporting the full Twitter experience to external sites. This type of brand protection is not uncommon (see the Facebook “Like” button) and it’s a sure sign of Twitter’s intention to gain control of its brand equity and wider presence. However, it does introduce challenges for brands in the way they use Twitter data; for example, reducing the opportunities to produce custom mash ups and forcing the use of more page real estate.

So, is this the first sign of Twitter turning its back on the developer community? Absolutely not. If anything, Twitter needs it more than ever, but this time it wants to be more in control of its own destiny. As always, the transition from open-source collaborator to profitable business is fraught with challenges, and as Twitter takes the first steps to establishing more control, it’s important to establish clear specifications and policy (the rule of law) that users can clearly understand rather than rely on ambiguous, opaque decision-making (the rule of man).

In the end, while the announcement may ruffle the feathers of the developer community and give marketers some additional things to consider, it’s another important step for Twitter as it strives to hit its IPO “fighting weight” and long-term profitability.  And who can argue against that? The digital world would be a lot less colorful without it.

Richard Mooney is Partner & Managing Director of North America at Essence Digital, a global digital agency delivering sophisticated digital marketing services to brands such as Google, YouTube, eBay and Expedia. During his career he has worked in a wide range of consulting and marketing positions, giving him a well-rounded, strategic view of the digital world. His main passion is in finding new ways to leverage data and technology to ensure Essence’s clients are spending their next ad dollar in the most appropriate place to meet their goals. He is currently responsible for the management of the North American practice and its continued, sustainable growth.