Twitter's 'Gryphon' chases its longtime fantasy: Social media payments

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In a simple job posting and reference to a subscription platform, Twitter drew attention to how it could use its platform to embed in numerous use cases that tie social tools, recurring revenue and digital commerce.

Twitter says it’s looking for a “full stack engineer” to lead payment and subscription client work, adding Twitter’s new team, codenamed “Gryphon,” is building a subscription platform that can be used by other teams. Twitter would not comment beyond saying no decisions on a product have been made and it would not make a product announcement on its careers page. The job posting was later edited to remove references to subscriptions and an internal team.

If Twitter were to enroll users and store payment credentials for a reusable platform, it could court partners and offer transactions with social context, similar to PayPal’s Venmo. It could also plug into recurring payments for a regular service like Netflix or offer access to premium digital retail like Amazon Prime and Walmart+.

But this isn't the first time Twitter has attempted to turn its social network into a payments platform. Just as Facebook Credits failed years before it announced the Libra currency, Twitter had a buy button that it discontinued in 2017.

Both Twitter and Facebook evolved after those failures. Facebook ramped up its financial expertise after Facebook Credits failed, giving it a more diverse mix of services to build its Libra project. In Twitter’s case, its ability to monetize its base appears to be expanding.

Twitter in February reported 152 million monetizable active users, adding this number was growing at a record rate — by April it reported 166 million. Twitter measures monetizable users as a way to link its advertising to user action, though it also serves as a metric to market itself to investors.

Subscription services have expanded over the past few years, drawing startups, venture capital and expanding in scope to include more products. Subscriptions now cover clothing, beauty products, food and other consumer goods in addition to digital content. The coronavirus lockdowns have caused a surge in digital subscriptions, though in some cases, such as Disney+, the growth in subscriptions has been offset by weakness in other areas of the business.

Twitter could use its large, active audience to enroll users for its own subscriptions or as a way to build relationships with third parties.

“Once enrolled you have a perpetual payment capability that can be reused in other purchase scenarios like PayPal, Amazon Pay, etc.,” said Richard Crone, a payments consultant. “Twitter is already a subscription service. It just lacks a payment credential."

Twitter’s usage — sending a tweet is as common a human activity as a Facebook post — makes Twitter a potential giant as a venue to enroll user credentials for shopping and subscriptions. Twitter has more than 330 million active users; more than 66% of B2B businesses use Twitter as a marketing tool, and 40% of Twitter users report purchasing something after seeing it on Twitter, according to Orberlo, a digital commerce unit of Shopify.

Oberlo did point out one area of challenge to Twitter's scale. Twitter’s iOS app store downloads, about 36 million in 2019, were outside of the top ten and behind rivals such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. And Twitter’s Google Play downloads are outside of the top 20.

A Twitter subscription project could also cause a stir because of Twitter’s recognition, a celebrity CEO in Jack Dorsey, and its vast international scale.

Dorsey is also CEO of Square, which provides potential crossover expertise. In this way Twitter and Square would be similar to PayPal managing Venmo, a transfer app that also includes social networking and messaging.

Square did not return a request for comment. Square’s mix of merchant and consumer products includes Square Cash, a P2P transfer app that has enjoyed a financial performance that’s better than most P2P apps, which generally lose money and act as a loss leader.

“If you can combine those aspects of Square and Twitter with a subscription based on user credentials, it’s a powerful new entry into the space,” Crone said.

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