Twitter Advertising: Big Yawn or Next Wave in Social Marketing?

You are reading this online, which means your life as a human is permeated with advertising. It’s so prevalent that your gaze slides over it and your mind edits it out. So when Twitter co-founder Biz Stone announced his company has found a business model in “Promoted Tweet” advertising, likely you weren’t bowled over.

Tweets as advertising — we call them “Tw-ads” — aren’t inherently new. Many companies are shouting into the Twitter maelstrom hoping to be heard, but Promoted Tweets may indicate a transformation of advertising into a utility rather than just an announcement.

The Tw-ads are Coming

Stone’s blog post talks about “the first phase of our Promoted Tweets platform with a handful of innovative advertising partners that include Best Buy, Bravo, Red Bull, Sony Pictures, Starbucks, and Virgin America…”

These partners will see their “promoted” Tw-ads, “called out at the top of some search results pages.” This means you will only see the Promoted Tweets when searching for relevant content on Twitter — or you need to be following the tweets of an advertising partner, since these posts will apparently keep all the functionality of regular tweets, including the ability to reply, retweet, and mark favorites.

So, in reality, the honour of getting to pay to tweet falls to Twitter’s partners. The onus remains with them to generate relevant tweets that contain enough searchable terms and are interesting enough to entice the twitterati to follow them and interact.

Even with “cooked” searches bubbling partners to the top, this isn’t guaranteed to fuel sales or even brand recognition if these advertisers aren’t strategic about their “social media” strategies. Which brings us to the question: why would a company pay for this?

The Social Media Contract

Many companies are already actively promoting their products and services on Twitter, with varying success. The most successful of these actually comply with the “social contract” of interaction and conversation that puts the “social” in social media.

These companies chat with their followers, or run promotions that give enough away to solicit interest or require re-tweeting to cascade their message across the Twittersphere.

Stone says as much. “Since all Promoted Tweets are organic Tweets,” he writes, “there is not a single ‘ad’ in our Promoted Tweets platform that isn’t already an organic part of Twitter.”  If you’re a company using Twitter effectively, then you’re already accomplishing this and the service may be of limited value to you.

The worst companies, of course, simply broadcast with interruption-based advertising, adding their yowls for attention to the cacophony of tweets. With over 1000 followers, my Twitter account has left me overrun by this noise. If Twitter is a tree then the branches are loaded to collapse with these squawking crows attempting to translate their experience with magazine or TV advertising to social media.

Unfortunately, these broadcast offenders initially will have the most to gain with their “We’ve introduced product X, take a look at it now at http:… BUY NOW!” approach. And if your business has a minimal uptake with your existing tweet strategy, double the interest looks pretty good initially.

Can Twitter Do Tough Love?

Stone, however, alludes to a safeguard in terms of campaigns that don’t work. “We’ll attempt to measure whether the Tweets resonate with users and stop showing Promoted Tweets that don’t resonate.”

Still, that means Twitter may have to show itself some tough love when confronted with a choice between paying clients and maintaining its standards.

Overall, though, Tw-ads seem the equivalent of a stifled technological yawn. We’ve had contextual Internet advertising since the dawn of “The Google” and our lives have not transformed.

Entering the Ecosystem

What strengthens Twitter’s proposition is its reach beyond the web to an ecosystem of internet and non-internet enabled devices. Twitter is designed around SMS messaging, which means it can be consumed on any phone capable of sending and receiving a 140 character text – the lowest common denominator.

Smartphones, such as Android-based offerings, the iPhone, Blackberry or Microsoft’s upcoming Kin, simply enhance the ease with which Twitter searches can be conducted.  What Twitter is offering savvy advertisers is real-time reach to consumers, and we as consumers get a way to reach the promotional content when and where we need it.

Imagine an advertising campaign that says, “If you tweet four of your friends and they join you at @Megabucks, you’re coffee is free.” All you need to do is search “Megabucks Coffee” for the details and show up to claim your reward, which may be as simple as showing the counterperson the tweets on all four phones.

Cracking the Commercial Code

For this to work seamlessly and become truly useful, however, what Twitter really needs to crack isn’t the real-time aspect but locality – the ability to serve advertising not only based on immediacy or keywords of your searches, but your physical location.

While social networks like trade in locality, Twitter traditionally hasn’t.  This may change with Twitter’s acquisition of Tweetie, a Twitter iPhone app from Atebit, which has geo-tagging capabilities.

To trade on locality with the tools at hand, Twitter would need to successfully integrate contextual search advertising with the user’s physical location though Tweetie (soon to be Twitter for iPhone), and extend itself though similar clients for Android and Blackberry.

When and if Twitter leverages locality, Promoted Tweets will move from being laughable Tw-ads to the next wave of social marketing and promotion – searches that are a utility where the ads are the target rather than promotional content to be ignored.  At that point our Life as a Human will see a bit less advertising interruption, and our Twitter accounts will see a bit more use.

Photo Credits

“Twitter money bird”

“Promoted Tweets” courtesy of

“A Man checks Twitter on an iPhone” stevegarfield @ Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

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