A few years ago when Twitter was in its infancy, company officials kept the m-word (monetization) at arm's length. Brand marketers, agency social media gurus, and anyone with an email address were all welcome to set up an account and start pinging away in 140 character bursts. But the idea that Twitter could be -- or would be -- a paid media platform was something the company just didn't talk about.
Still, without formal ad opportunities, some brands got Twitter almost right away. Others, it seems, are still wondering what happened. Over at Twitter, times have changed. In late September, The New York Times reported that the company was rolling out a new advertising model. There are no homepage takeovers or glitzy rich media banners (yet), but Twitter is now offering advertisers the opportunity to buy followers and insert themselves into trends.
"Twitter suggests accounts that people should follow, based on their interests, and will use the same algorithm to suggest accounts that advertisers pay to promote," the Times article stated.
Advertisers pay based on an interaction with the Twitter post. An interaction occurs when a user clicks on the link, forwards the post, or replies to it. The Times cited Dick Costolo (Twitter's then-COO, now the company's CEO), who said people have been clicking these ads at a rate of about 5 percent. So far, about 40 companies have paid to advertise on Twitter. Next year, Twitter says it plans to open up the platform to a wider group of advertisers with a system akin to Google's AdSense. Right now the idea of advertising on Twitter is still relatively new, so we asked some leading social media experts to weigh in on the topic, and what this means for marketers.
Awareness at 140 characters per second
If it's happening now, it's happening on Twitter. Like it or not, that's become a truism of our world. Want the latest information on political strife in Iran? You've got to go to Twitter. Want to know what everyone thought about the "Mad Men" season finale? Twitter. Chilean miners? You guessed it -- Twitter.
Twitter's title as the go-to destination for the most up-to-date information in an increasingly buzz-driven world is, from a marketing perspective, an absolute gold mine. What brand wouldn't want the opportunity to influence customers inside a clearing house for hot information, trends, and ideas? So when you talk about the opportunity to raise your brand's awareness in terms of "promoted tweets" or -- even better -- "promoted trends," you really can't beat Twitter right now, says Patrick Boegel, director of media integration at Media Logic. But there's a catch, and it could be a big one.
"Beyond tapping into awareness, [Twitter's] impact might be questionable," Boegel says. "There are two parts to the equation. First, finding a topic: Twitter recognizes as having enough activity to be a promoted trend. Secondly, whether or not users are logged into Twitter via the web, a Twitter app, or a third-party application. If a user is on Tweetdeck for desktop, great promoted trends are still visible, but on a mobile app such as Seesmic for Android it is not there. For the average advertiser in the entertainment world, that's not a big deal. But if you're attempting to purchase more than topical awareness, you may be losing valuable portions of the Twitter user base simply because of how they access the service."
While Twitter has been combating this fragmentation by trying to get users to come back to the site or use its mobile app, another potential pitfall also lurks on the awareness front, Boegel says.
"Users' first reactions tend to be curiosity, but when we step outside of our marketing hats and try to be objective as consumers of information on the other side, we all know it becomes easy to put on the blinders and tune information out," Boegel explains. "If you are in a larger, nationally available or 'several major cities' event-based business, the success potential and reach is certainly huge right now. A year from now, my guess is that first-wave marketers will have to work twice as hard to achieve the same results they are seeing in the initial stages."
Is it worth your money?
There's no question that a lot of people use Twitter, and there's no question that Twitter has a tremendous ability to take a message viral. But Aaron Shapiro, CEO of HUGE, says he isn't certain that Twitter ads will really deliver value to marketers, even though he sees the platform as a fundamental part of social media strategy for all of his clients.
"The Twitter ad packages currently presented are not going to give clients the most bang for their buck," Shapiro says. "We equate promoted tweets with banner blindness. Once the gimmick wears off, it becomes that much harder for consumers to click. Twitter is an amazing marketing platform exactly because it is a free tool. The most successful Twitter campaigns have not been through ad spends but through creative marketing ideas, from offering discount codes, exclusive products, customization, or engaging content. We've found that our clients have much greater success and sustainable results investing $100K on an 'ideas' campaign than on a one-day Twitter trend promotion."
Are you thinking of your buy in the right way?
If you're buying followers on Twitter, it's easy to say that you're buying just that -- followers. That is, you're buying the ability to put your message in front of somebody, and hopefully influence them on an ongoing basis, or at least as long as your campaign lasts.
But what exactly does that mean? The answer depends on how you think about the media buy. And according to Jim Spinello, SVP of marketing and communications at rEvolution, it means using Twitter as a foothold for making a connection.
"If your advertising model is to buy, place, and move on, then Twitter is probably not the right investment," Spinello says. "Any buy on Twitter must be an engaged buy. It's not like buying a banner ad or broadcast commercial. Buying on Twitter is all about creating a dialogue and continuing the conversation."
Spinello's advice: Think of a buy on Twitter as a sponsorship.
"Buying on a platform like Twitter could be thought of in terms of buying a traditional sponsorship," Spinello says. "There's the cost of entry, but you have to invest/spend to activate your buy in order for it to be worth the initial investment."Of course "activating" your buy means that after the initial media spend, you have to ask: Then what? What will you do with these followers? Will you offer them a real world opportunity? Will you engage them in a conversation that exceeds a 140-character limit?
The point, according to Spinello, is that an ad on Twitter can bring people to your brand, but what you do after that will determine the real value of the exchange.
Don't ignore the audience
Twitter is not Facebook, but there is an obvious comparison here if we're talking about "flipping the switch" from zero advertising to some paid media. I'm not going to go into the details of the ongoing hiccups as Facebook tries to sell both its users and advertisers on ads and the data collection that makes those ads relevant. But I will say that the last round was just plain weird, at least as it played it in my News Feed. On the one hand, I saw posts from friends who don't work in digital. I consider these friends to be smart, informed people. They were sharing -- on Facebook and with no sense of irony! -- angry comments about the "revelation" that advertisers were using their personal information to target them with more relevant ads. Articles by surprised reporters in dozens of well-respected newspapers seemed to fuel this latest awareness as well. But of course, on the other hand, I also have a lot of friends who work in digital. They too replied to this story with a collective -- so what? Actually, the response was a little more like, "And this is news, how?"
For a variety of reasons, Facebook hasn't been able to successfully explain to users that there is advertising on the site, and that it is often informed by what the user does on the site, and what the user tells the site. Like it or not, this seemingly simple misunderstanding represents a big disconnect, and it's that disconnect brands should be cautious of when they "flip the switch" on Twitter, says Chris Pitre, a social marketing strategist at IDEA.
"Clients should tread extremely carefully when integrating paid advertising into a highly conversational medium with a known low tolerance for spam and heavy promoting," Pitre says. "Clients that would be interested in advertising on Twitter would have to first know their audience and their audience's preference and perception of Twitter advertising. Pending those findings, I'd find a less obtrusive way to enter the client's brand on conversations happening on Twitter."
That said, Pitre isn't sour on Twitter at all. In fact, he's all in favor of a smart execution that leverages Twitter's unique capabilities.
"For example, if the ad could be personalized to the user querying Twitter and act as a way to continue a natural conversation between the brand and the user, that would be a smarter way of integrating the ad," Pitre says.
Although, he adds, "I'm not sure if Twitter plans on allowing for certain levels of customization and personalization within [its ad platform], but I could imagine things getting exciting there, if not hotly debated among industry pundits."
But for Pitre, the big takeaway is that a brand should have a very solid understanding of how its target audience perceives advertising on Twitter before the brand starts paying for followers.
It's A Twitter world
While pundits can debate whether Twitter ads will work for marketers (or perhaps, how best to make them work for marketers), the reality is that marketers need to take note of the digital sand shifting below their feet. Reacting to Twitter's recent redesign, which has been a big part of bringing ads to the platform, Chris Ebbesen, imc² strategy director, blogged that "the splinternet is inevitable."
Tech jargon aside, Ebbesen's point is that if the internet as we know it is becoming a series of "walled gardens"(a popular topic on the pages of Wired these days), then marketers need to be ready.
"They have to follow their customers into these new gardens, but when they do, they have to adapt their approach for that medium," Ebbesen says. "Facebook and Twitter are collaborative in nature: a bunch of people talking to each other, trading content and ideas as a form of social currency. Marketers have to think about the engine of these mediums and optimize their strategies and ideas to fuel that engine. They have to shift toward creating ideas and stories that are told across different devices and platforms, with each 'chapter' of the story being engineered to take advantage of the medium's unique value offering. They have to provide social currency to be exchanged between friends."
In concrete terms, Ebbesen says that should mean an end to the practice of repurposing content and messaging (if you still believe there's a difference) across multiple platforms. Instead, marketing is going to have to get a lot more granular.
Whether that means advertisers will be keen to buy ads on Twitter down the road is likely an open question. But whether it's paid ads or free media, the message from Twitter to marketers is that the time has come to get serious about big ideas in 140-character packages.
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
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