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As Twitter launches a trial run of its Promoted Tweets paid-for ad platform, the company hopes the service will generate creative advertising and boost user engagement

quick facts

  • Promoted Tweets are clearly labelled messages that brands want to be seen by a wide group of Twitter users
  • The first phase of the platform has advertising partners such as Red Bull and Starbucks
  • Promoted Tweets will appear once in search results, but Twitter has plans to add them to users’ timelines
  • It will measure Promoted Tweets for ’resonance’, based on factors like number of retweets and click-throughs
  • Promoted Tweets will be provided to third-party application developers on a 50/50 revenue-share basis
  • Twitter is using an impression-based pricing model for the test phase

Last month Twitter launched the first stage of its Promoted Tweets advertising platform, with initial sponsors including Best Buy, Bravo, Red Bull, Sony Pictures, Starbucks and Virgin America. While the platform’s emergence has raised many questions among brands and agencies, it’s largely being welcomed, albeit cautiously, by the industry.

“Its USP is that it’s organic and not a typical ad,” says Karthik Manick, director of demand generation at Hilton Hotels. “The format’s credibility will be greater and the low ad-to-content ratio will boost response.”

A common question about the launch of Promoted Tweets is why it has taken so long to create something which, on the surface, looks rather basic and very similar to Google’s long-established AdWords model. Tom Jones, head of media at search agency iCrossing, acknowledges we can expect many changes and iterations to the platform, but says the current implementation is “somewhat crude and very much in a nascent form”.

Twitter is clear about why it has taken its time. “Our focus has been on dealing with the engineering and product realities that an average 1,500% year-on-year growth since 2006 brings,” says Sean Garrett, VP of communications at Twitter. “We wanted to be careful with how we approached monetisation so that it improved user experience. We see Promoted Tweets as a product feature, not simply a way to advertise.”

A familiar breed

Adopting a basic platform that bears similarities to an established model could encourage brand engagement. “Starting to feature tweets against search results is a smart move to get brands involved,” says Andrew Pascoe, associate director at media agency MediaCom. “They can see parallels between Google AdWords so they won’t get scared. Users have to be showing some sort of intent so, at minimum, they’ll see an ad at least vaguely related to their search term or, ideally, closely related.”

Twitter says there are “obvious similarities with AdWords”, but is quick to point out why its unique functionality sets it apart. “Where things get interesting is the combination of paid and earned media,” says Garrett. “Brands pay for their Promoted Tweets to be seen, but they earn replies, retweets and so on. This gives even greater incentive to promote compelling content.”

Twitter will use an impression-based CPM pricing model for the test phase, a model that it plans to refine. The concept of resonance will be central to Promoted Tweets, based on a set of metrics that will gauge the quality of a sponsored tweet according to nine factors, including the number of replies, retweets and click-throughs. Tweets that fail to resonate will be pulled down, meaning brands no longer have to pay.

It’s this concept of resonance which is perhaps attracting the most curiosity. Will McInnes, MD of social media agency Nixon McInnes, says, “Google is an engineering-led company and its model is very logical and authoritative. Resonance captures something more social, namely what people think, putting a dose of humanity in there. If people are sharing a tweet and clicking on it, then it will live; if they don’t, it won’t. This will be a good challenge for the marketing community.”

Guillaume Foutry, social media strategist at Nudge Social Media, says the model raises the question of ROI and analytics. “If Twitter can produce a sophisticated tool to measure the actions linked to these tweets, brands might be willing to pay for it. Otherwise they’ll be reluctant to jump on the bandwagon as it might already be difficult enough to justify the ROI of a Twitter account.”

Sarah Emerson, online marketing manager at Greenbee, the financial services arm of John Lewis, has similar concerns. “Twitter URLs are so short that we have difficulty adding any tracking cookies and therefore can’t measure success directly,” she says.

Twitter is one step ahead. “Measuring ROI is core to any ad campaign,” says Garrett. “We’ll provide an analytics dashboard that should help brands easily learn what’s working and what isn’t.” However, further details of the system are yet to be unveiled. Garrett adds that shorter URLs generally have analytics built in.

How resonance will affect pricing, like the way Google’s Quality Score determines keyword pricing, remains to be seen, although Twitter has said that in time it wants marketers to pay for ads based on the lift in resonance above a standard tweet. Exactly how brands will use Promoted Tweets to greatest effect is also still unknown, and no one is sure how much information the guinea pig brands will release. Spencer Stratford, co-founder of communications planning agency Opticomm, which works with Greenbee, says creativity from early adopters will be vital to the model’s success.

Hilton’s Manick agrees. “Promoted Tweets will be ideal for use during new product announcements, discount sales and offers,” he says. “The more innovative brands get in their use of this avenue - for example, tweeting about customer service FAQs and pre-sales advice/tips - the better results they should expect to get.”

Short stories

McInnes says the challenge will be how brands “capture a whole story and a proposition in so few characters”, but Garrett believes this is already happening.

“Lots of brands are using Twitter to tell stories,” he says. “And with the ability to link to content elsewhere, Tweets are a powerful way to connect people with a brand’s story that’s happening right now.”

Brands might be getting used to communicating in shorter forms - for example, via Facebook status updates as well as corporate Twitter updates. But MediaCom’s Pascoe is unsure how they’ll use Twitter for pure advertising. “Will we see offer-based tweets, or will advertisers focus on branded response?” he asks. “That may be how some see an easy route to keeping it short.”

That said, some brands will want to take a longer-term approach. Matt Pritchard, European digital planning director at Kellogg’s Europe, says, “For us, Twitter is about engagement and taking the time to talk to people. We’ve been looking forward to seeing how the site would evolve to accommodate advertisers and it will be interesting to see what the consumer response is. The new model seems like a good starting point but the Promoted Tweets will still need to invite conversation, otherwise they’ll stand out like a sore thumb and the impact will be minimal.”

Others believe impact will be affected by Promoted Tweets only being shown within search results. Stratford questions how many people use this facility. “Google created a system that rewards advertisers for providing the most relevant ads for users on their results pages,” he says. “Twitter may find this hard to replicate as its search results are usually there to satisfy a curiosity rather than navigate a user further through the web.”

ICrossing’s Jones adds that there’s a “data vacuum” with regards to understanding how users search on Twitter. “Google’s traffic estimator is one of the most used tools in any search marketer’s toolkit. Twitter search is a bit of a black box. There are an estimated 19bn Twitter searches a month globally, but no authoritative steer from Twitter on searches for different keywords. If Twitter crack this, it can unlock its inventory.” It’s something Garrett concedes will be important, adding that further down the line Promoted Tweets will also appear in users’ timelines.

The extent to which third parties will embrace Promoted Tweets will also impact on exposure within Twitter search. Social media experts points out that many people never go back to Twitter itself after finding a preferred way of reading tweets, such as Tweetdeck. Hence third-party buy-in will play a crucial role. Jones adds that the experience isn’t consistent, with a search for ’Starbucks’ on Twitter yielding a promoted result, but not on Tweetdeck. “If third-party developers can opt out of showing Promoted Tweets, it’ll severely limit available search volumes,” he says.

But Garrett is optimistic. “We’ve announced that we will be providing Promoted Tweets to third-party application developers. The use will be voluntary and we’ll provide 50/50 revenue share for those that do,” he says.

It may be an unknown, but there’s certainly room for brands to experiment with Twitter’s latest initiative, and it seems most agencies are positive about encouraging this. Joel Davis, CEO of social media agency Agency:2, says, “It’s the type of thing one should test, as long as the content is useful for users and relevant to the brand.”

Pascoe agrees: “It’s about tracking it back to some sort of return. We’ll be careful to make sure brands start small. It’s better to get keywords that are well thought through than risk appearing irrelevant or annoying people.”

Twitter’s Garrett says the model simply amplifies what companies are already doing on the micro-blogging site. “You already see smaller, more savvy companies use services like Twitter to engage deeply with their customers, just as you see big companies having individual impact like never before,” he says.

One thing is certain: Twitter is serious about making Promoted Tweets work. Last week it announced it would bar third-party paid tweets from any services that uses its API, even if it means forgoing short-term revenues.

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Published 3 June, 2010 by NMA Staff

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