How Twitter needs to walk a fine line with advertisers

 In twitter

A recent scoop from Tim Bradshaw (@tim) at the Financial Times during #canneslions last week pointed to Twitter taking a bolder stance with advertising on the 5 year old micro blogging site.

Quoting from Tim’s article

twitter-adsAccording to three people familiar with the situation, Twitter’s plans under consideration would see “promoted tweets” appear in their main timeline, the main focus of the Twitter website. Twitter had tested such ads with a third-party mobile client, HootSuite.

Users could also see tweets from a brand they follow appear high up in their stream even though they were posted hours previously.

In many ways this is not new.  Twitter has been promoting a range of advertising products for some time now namely:

Promoted Tweets appearing as content in search results, not alongside them

Promoted Trends artificially promote a particular brand or keyword as a trend

Promoted Accounts are a paid for placement in the “who to follow” area

As many commentators have pointed out, Twitter’s ad revenue (rumoured to be around $100M in 2011) doesn’t compare that favourably to Facebook’s estimated $4Bn revenue number for 2011).

It’s a tough call for Twitter to generate significant ad revenue from a “conversation service” without really annoying their users.

Twitter has shied away from what may have seen an obvious route – that of banner ads or display ads on the site, but now 5 years in and millions of dollars later, they need to up the revenue from advertising.

Looking at Tim Bradshaw’s article in more detail (and I can only assume his scoop is correct because I am yet to see a retraction from Twitter), we can expect to see more aggressive placement of “promoted tweets” (read Twitter ads) in user’s timelines very soon.

Below is an example of a tame Starbucks promoted tweet – and I would expect the new forms of Twitter ads (because that’s what advertising agencies will call them) might look like.

promoted-tweet-starbucks

Twitter’s dilemma – “social media advertising” is an oxymoron

You can’t buy space in a conversation – a great quote I saw from one of David Cushman’s talks (slide 14) and one that makes great sense.  It also points to the problem with trying to apply the same advertising buying metrics to social media.

To be clear you CANNOT ADVERTISE on social media in the same way as you can with TV, you need a different approach to buying “space” in a conversation (just as you can’t buy space in a conversation at the pub, or a conference, or anywhere for that matter).

And here lies Twitter’s greatest challenge.  If they insert promoted tweets in a user’s timeline, I am assuming that they will be selling them on a cost/per basis (whether this stays as cost per engagement, cost per mille etc we will soon see).

The problem they will face is that the advertising world is used to buying advertising in bulk (specific TARPs or GRP for TV, CPM for web etc) so an ad planner will say “I want my Twitter ad to appear to 50,000 Twitter users”

The poor old Twitter ad sales exec will explain that it is not so simple, and it needs to be relevant, must resonate and be able to be re-tweeted etc etc

A possible response from a non-social media savvy planner might just be “I want my Twitter ad to appear to 50,000 Twitter users”…… sigh.


Will Twitter chose the nuclear option?

Could Twitter bite the bullet and start to push promoted tweets (Twitter ads) in a big way to a wider audience than they are currently serving, to increase ad revenue and keep the VC’s and backers happy?

Whichever way they ramp up their advertising business, the one thing I really hope they are working on is an ad relevance engine.

You see, I am quite happy to see more promoted tweets in my timeline, even as a persistent “DickBar” style method AS LONG AS the tweets are RELEVANT.

This is a huge deal for me (and will probably also be for 1000’s of other Twitter users) and I really hope that Twitter uses my previous 13,000+ tweets as a way of ensuring that the ads I see are relevant.

What I don’t want Twitter to do is make the same mistakes that the mobile advertising industry made a few years ago, and tried to transplant banner ads from the web to the mobile.

Because the mobile is such a personal device (have a look at this video below from the 4:20 minute mark, when I asked an audience of 400 in Amsterdam in 2009 to swap their mobile with the person next to them.

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What this exercise proved in 2009 (and still gets the same reaction in every city and country I speak at) is that the mobile is personal. We can transplant this mobile example for social media conversations and tweets. To interrupt a social media conversation in a non-relevant way (we call this broadcast advertising) would be classified as butting into a conversation.


Old advertising rules no longer apply

What I advise clients over and over again is that they can no longer simply take a TV campaign and retro-fit it to twitter.

You have to be much smarter at this, just as when you approach a group of people you have never met at a conference and hover, waiting for the right moment to inject your view into the conversation, you are waiting for the moment when you will be most relevant.


Getting the balance right

Twitter needs to get this balance right, and if they do they stand to make a lot of money.

Get it wrong and it is another color.com moment, where they will have to go back to the drawing board (and the investors) to keep the now very expensive (400+ staff and recent $50M TweetDeck acquisition) lights on.

 

Twitter’s Cannes trip is a step in the right direction

Looking at the tweets from Katie Jacobs Stanton (@katies), Twitter sent a sizeable team from San Francisco (as well as their new UK GM Tony Wang) to the Cannes Lions last week to schmoose ad agencies.

I had the pleasure of meeting Katie in person at the Twitter HQ recently, and know her to be a smart operator.  I guess that they spent a lot of time testing their new proposition with agencies and brands in Cannes to see if it would fly.


I’m a huge fan of Twitter, and I hope they figure out the ad model

I want twitter to figure this out , and I know they are capable of this because they are a smart bunch (flock), but they possibly need to ignore some of the feedback they received from their meetings in Cannes and instead go with their gut instincts and develop commercial communications (read relevant and wanted ads) that twitter users are willing to not only receive, but also click on and engage with.

Ad agencies are probably not the best people to advise on how to advertise on social media, because they are so used to the reach & frequency broadcast model we have been using for the last 50 years.

I will be watching this space closely, and I’m likely to come across some of those who were in Cannes and met with Twitter at the PeopleBrowsr UK launch party this week so perhaps I will hear first-hand if I am right or not.

About 

Futurist Keynote Speaker and former IBM Global Managing Partner, Andrew is a popular and sought-after presenter and commentator on issues around digital disruption and emerging technologies. He is a multiple TEDx & International Keynote Speaker. Watch his speaking showreel here, enquire about availability & fees here.