Advertising in Twitter land: will promoted tweets do the trick?

12 Aug 2010

Micro-blogging site Twitter has enjoyed phenomenal growth since being launched in 2006 and is now the 11th most visited online property in the world (Alexa) and is estimated to have more than 100 million subscribers who post 65 million tweets on an average day, or 750 messages a second.

Interestingly, the site records 190 million visitors a month, suggesting that a large number of people are logging on to Twitter to read posts without actually contributing to the conversations themselves.

The company sees itself in the role of a communications platform that helps businesses connect with their customers through sharing information, gathering feedback and building relationships. For marketers, much of the appeal of the service is the ability to listen and respond to what consumers are saying in a largely open and uncontrolled environment.

In an attempt to maintain the perceived value of the platform, Twitter has been measured in its approach to rolling out a revenue stream.

“Over the years, we’ve resisted introducing a traditional web advertising model because we wanted to optimise for value before profit,” said Twitter’s co-founder and creative director Biz Stone on the company blog earlier this year. “The open exchange of information creates opportunities for individuals, organisations, and businesses alike.”

In April 2010, Twitter started down the road to a paid advertising strategy when Stone revealed that partner companies would in future be able to buy ‘promoted tweets’.

“You will start to see tweets promoted by our partner advertisers called out at the top of some search results pages,” Stone told the Twitter community. Those initial ad partners included mega brands such as Best Buy, Bravo, Red Bull, Sony, Starbucks and Virgin America.

Under the promoted tweets offering, if a user now carries out a search for Starbucks, for example, they may see an offer from the company at the top of their results. Where paid for, the tweet would be marked ‘Promoted by Starbucks Coffee’. In all other ways, Twitter maintains that these messages exist as regular tweets and are sent organically to those following the brand in question. They also retain all the functionality of a regular tweet, so that users can reply to them, retweet them and favourite them.

“We strongly believe that promoted tweets should be useful to you,” said Stone. “We’ll attempt to measure whether the tweets resonate with users and stop showing promoted tweets that don’t resonate.” In other words, if users don’t interact with a promoted tweet, that tweet will disappear.

In May 2010, meanwhile, the company announced that third- party advertisers would no longer be able to put paid tweets or ads into any user timeline on any Twitter service. Chief operating officer Dick Costolo said the company was banning these ads because third-party ad networks would not necessarily be acting in the best interests of the Twitter platform, and also because such networks may be optimised for short-term monetisation at the expense of innovating or creating the best user experience.

The second step in Twitter’s new advertising strategy is the ‘promoted trends’ concept, which is currently in test phase and involves users seeing trending topics that have been paid for by advertising partners. The idea is that these trends, which are labelled ‘promoted’, start off at the bottom of Twitter’s trending topics list and move up the list if conversations about the topic in question increase.

However, critics question the criteria by which the sponsored trends will move up and down the list – ie, will the fact that they’re paid for influence their position? – while questions have been raised about the ethics of distorting the lines between real conversations and advertising.

The first promoted trend was for the topic ‘Toy Story 3’, which went live on 16 June and was paid for by Disney Pixar. Interestingly Coca-Cola, which bought the second ever promoted trend – congratulating the US and England teams for moving forward in the World Cup – reported phenomenal results, with 86 million impressions in a single day. It also had a very impressive click through rate of 6pc.

The third phase in the new strategy was the introduction in July of the Earlybird service, which is designed to provide followers with exclusive deals, sneak peeks, events and discounts over a limited period. Initially focused on the US market, this service has so far attracted more than 145,000 followers. Some of the partners that have offered exclusive deals for followers in the first weeks of the new service include Walt Disney Studios, Virgin America, Target and Gap.

It’s early days for Twitter’s advertising model and time will tell whether the approach will pay off. That Twitter can attract some of the biggest brands in the world as its initial partners may augur well for its chances.