Jack Dorsey, known to his 1.7 million followers at @jack, is trying to invent a new form of publishing again. The last time he did that, he helped to create Twitter.
For a few years now, Dorsey has been working on Square, a company he founded that offers a dinky card reader that makes it possible for anyone to accept credit-card payments on a phone or tablet. In conversation with David Kirkpatrick at the Techonomy conference in Tucson, Arizona, today, he explained that Square is actually a publishing company, too, and that creating a new publishing medium is a big part of where his new company’s profit potential lies.
This new publishing medium is actually a reinvention of an old one that you scorn every day: the receipt. “Typically we get a receipt and throw it away already,” said Dorsey, “[but] you can treat receipts as a publishing channel between the merchant and the payer.” He went on to make it sound as if that publishing channel was Square’s real goal, and that payments were incidental. “Square, to us, is about that communication channel. It’s about that exchange of value. Payment is what we have to do to get to that interesting communication channel between merchant and payer.”
The leading edge of Square’s publishing plans can be discerned in its Card Case app, which makes it possible to use your name and face to pay for goods in coffee shops and restaurants. The app enables you to open “tabs” with participating businesses so that those businesses will know anytime you are within a 50-meter radius. If you stroll in and say “a cappuccino for Jack, please,” they simply check your face against a list of photos of nearby Card Case users and tap on it to set the payment in motion. Crucially, the transaction triggers an electronic receipt that is sent back to you. That’s where Dorsey spies gold.
When asked about Twitter’s plans to make money, he said its business model was centered on serendipity— helping people find stuff they liked that they otherwise would never have found. “We can introduce you to content in ways you would never have found it before,” said Dorsey. Now imagine that “content” is recommendations for coffee shops, restaurants, or even individual menu items. Square’s Card Case could offer incredibly well-targeted ads, or even Groupon-style daily deals. Some users won’t be interested, but others will welcome a new way to find new things. I know I wouldn’t complain if this approach could spare me from being pushed the deals for manicures and hair removal that I often receive today.
Dorsey acknowledged that advertising is often unpopular, but apparently thinks that Square’s version can prove to be a lucrative exception. “When AdWords first came from Google, people were not sure they wanted it, but I’ve found, and Google found, that it makes search better,” said Dorsey. He’s not alone in noticing that Google’s search ads seem relatively benign, even helpful.
Dorsey seems to think that Square’s insight into spending habits in the real world could translate the same “intent+ads=profit” formula onto the high street. If that comes off, maybe disrupting and democratizing credit-card payments—what Square is usually understood to be about—will just be a nice side benefit.