CIO

UberTwitter BlackBerry Twitter app fiasco

Popular free BlackBerry Twitter application UberTwitter got an update to beta v4 yesterday. But along with a handful of new features and software enhancements, users also saw a crop of advertisements strewn throughout their Twitter streams for the first time. UberTwitter has since removed the ads, which angered many users. It serves as a cautionary tale for developers who hope to monetize their apps.
  • Al Sacco (CIO (US))
  • 14 August, 2009 04:56

BlackBerry applications for social networking/microblogging service Twitter aren't exactly hard to come by. In the past year or so, a variety of quality Twitter apps for BlackBerry smartphones hit the Web, both free and commercial, including TweetGenius, SocialScope and UberTwitter.

The most popular BlackBerry Twitter app right now is UberTwitter, according to TwitStat, a Twitter metrics tracking service. In fact, UberTwitter beat out SocialScope and TweetGenius by a long shot, with some 1.26 percent of the total Twitter-app-user market. The app even bested longtime BlackBerry Twitter mainstay, TwitterBerry, by nearly half a percentage point.

That brings us to today's lesson: What not to do when you've got a fairly successful application in beta and you're ready to experiment with monetization methods.

This story begins just yesterday, when UberTwitter announced an upgrade to its BlackBerry application, UberTwitter beta 4. (Because UberTwitter is in "open beta," it's available to anyone who requests an invite.) The new version touts a bunch of cool new features, including like the ability to configure the app for multiple Twitter accounts, video integration via TwitVid.com, built-in bit.ly URL shortening and much more.

However, the tweaks weren't all for the better--at least from a user perspective. UberTwitter also decided to launch an advertising stream within its app. What's worse, it rolled out this change without any warning. Adding insult to injury, it didn't give users the ability to opt out, either.

As UberTwitter quickly learned through support e-mails it received, and watching angry and frustrated users vent on Twitter, this wasn't the best idea. The problem? Prior to the upgrade, users were comfortable, even happy, with UberTwitter. Naturally, they got excited in the lead up to the new version, only to be blindsided by unexpected advertisements thrown into what's usually a very private space: Their personal Twitter streams.

Shortly after releasing UberTwitter beta 4 and seeing the first wave of backlash, the company explained via Twitter that it would soon be offering both free and paid versions of the application. Only the free version would feature advertisements, the company said. The paid version is expected to sell for less than $5, though it's unclear if that cost will be for an unlimited license or a one-year subscription.

This morning, UberTwitter (wisely) decided to pull the new ads from users' Twitter streams altogether--for the time being. But the damage was done.

The competition for BlackBerry users' hearts and minds in the Twitter app game is particularly intense right now. This beta-ad incident could prove to be a significant blow for UberTwitter, especially if it loses users to competitors like Social Scope or TweetGenius as a result.

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It's worth noting that neither SocialScope nor TweetGenius are free; both apps are currently in private beta. They'll both presumably be listed for sale in the future. (TweetGenius was publicly available for $4.99 until its developers decided to pull it back into beta status.) Neither application has ever embedded advertising.

So were UberTwitter users justified in calling out the company for including ads in the new version? It is free, after all, and UberTwitter needs to run a business if it wants to sustain its app over the longhaul. What right do they have to complain, correct?

Not so much. I think they're well within their rights to be angry. In fact, if I were an UberTwitter user, I'd have been equally pissed off. (I call TweetGenius my BlackBerry Twitter app.) It's true the application is free, giving users less say in the matter. But UberTwitter set certain expectations by releasing a number of ad-free beta versions before beta 4. Its users' commitment/loyalty to the app was based on those expectations.

The problem here is NOT UberTwitter's advertisements. The problem is with HOW UberTwitter decided to implement the ads. Had UberTwitter warned its existing beta users that a new version with ads was in the pipeline, it would have been a different story. It should have kept users updated, and gave them the option to stick with a previous, ad-free version.

So, three quick takeaways for software developers and application makers:

1) Users are your most important resource. But just because you have them using your product doesn't mean they'll stay that way. You've got to earn their support--and money. The best way to do that is to constantly keep them updated. Tell them the truth about product decisions, before making significant changes, whenever possible.

2) Solicit feedback from users on potentially-controversial changes to core product functionality. Don't just spring it on them, and then ask for their opinions and/or help reactively.

3) Remember: Free is a magic word for consumers. With a free price tag, your product looks sexier. As soon as you charge for it, all the folks simply looking for a free ride will hit the road. At that point, merit alone will ensure your application's success. So before you go charging for your applications or services--and you probably should, you worked hard on them--make sure you're offering something the competition can't or won't make free. Oh yeah, and when you name a price, pick one people will be willing to pay.