Twitter is proving a viral breeding ground for marketing tactics, but the microblogging site is not a limitless, or even a very predictable, space for generating brand buzz.

The distinction between a failed and successful Twitter campaign can be as simple as a prize technicality, and Twitter users' tolerance for brand spam is as yet unclear. But most worrying is the fact that right now Twitter is proving to be a fickle friend to marketers.

Earlier this month, Do-It-Yourself web publisher Moonfruit offered a prize give away of 10 MacBook pros to followers who retweeted the company's name most creatively. The outlay earned the company over 46,000 followers, increased traffic to its home page 1,300% and got them a place on Twitter's Trending Topics list.

Today, The Wall Street Journal uses the company as an example of the endless marketing possibilities on the microblogging service:

While companies have used traditional contests for years to generate buzz, a Twitter contest is superior because "retweeting" spreads brand awareness even quicker, says Dan Zarrella, a social-media consultant based in Boston. Case in point: for three days "#Moonfruit" was on Twitter's trending topics list, which tracks the most popular words on the site.

"People like free stuff and you can often motivate them to do a lot for it," Mr. Zarrella says.

But what the article leaves out is where Twitter inserted itself in the process. The microblogging company is not agnostic about marketing tactics. In this instance, the hashtag #moonfruit was on Twitter's Top Trends list for several days, and bumped Michael Jackson off the list. But then Twitter seems to have removed Moonfruit from the list entirely.

Twittter has not responded to my questions on the subject, but Wendy Tan White, the founder of Moonfruit, thinks the microblogging site is considering a play in the space and didn't appreciate Moonfruit's tactics. She wrote on the company's blog:

"I’ve said it before in comments on other blogs, but this is probably a commercial channel for Twitter in the future (I’m sure they’ve thought about it! Maybe we've touched a nerve.) Perhaps there should be ‘commercial trends’ vs ‘normal trends’ lists. And its certainly been said that users should be able to filter their feeds to remove ‘commercial’ or unwanted tags."

Clearly there are marketing opportunities on Twitter. But giving away prizes to increase buzz could become a very expensive endeavor for companies. (I wrote specifically about Moonfruit's efforts here.)

As marketers increasingly try to win new followers with prizes, the price of a brand retweet is likely to increase. Moonfruit's campaign was seen as a success, but they learned from the lessons of a similar campaign run by DIY publisher SquareSpace. SquareSpace ran into trouble when it became clear that the company was giving away $199 gift certificates, not actual iPhones, as their marketing implied. Also, Moonfruit spent over $12,000 on its Twitter contest prizes, which is a considerably outlay for an unpredictable marketing method.

The amount of press and buzz they've gotten appears to have been worth it, but it is not a contest that can be carbon copied. And any contest to win followers with prizes will experience a considerable drop off once the prizes are given away. A week after their contest, Moonfruit's followers had dropped to 34,000.

But a bigger concern is what role Twitter will play in this process moving forward. And until it becomes clear what Twitter will do when marketing campaigns reach the Trending Topics list, marketers should be wary before they shell out for prizes that hope to generate enough buzz to get them there. 

Meghan Keane

Published 20 July, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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