(image) As I posted earlier, last week I had a chance to sit down with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. We had a pretty focused chat on Twitter’s news of the week, but I also got a number of questions in about Twitter’s next generation of ad products.
As usual, Dick was frank where he could be, and demurred when I pushed too hard. (I’ll be talking to him at length at Web 2 Summit next month.) However, a clear-enough picture emerged such that I might do some “thinking out loud” about where Twitter’s ad platform is going. That, combined with some very well-placed sources who are in a position to know about Twitter’s ad plans, gives me a chance to outline what, to the best of my knowledge, will be the next generation of Twitter’s ad offerings.
I have to say, if the company pulls it off, the company is sitting on a Very Big Play. But if you read my post Twitter and the Ultimate Algorithm, you already knew that.
In that post, I laid out what I thought to be Twitter’s biggest problem/opportunity: surfacing the right content, in the right context, to the right person at the right time. It’s one of the largest computer science and social engineering problems on the web today, a fascinating opportunity to leverage what is becoming a real time database of folks’ implicit and explicitly declared interests.
I also noted that should Twitter crack this code, its ad products would follow. As I wrote: “If Twitter can assign a rank, a bit of context, a “place in the world” for every Tweet as it relates to every other Tweet and to every account on Twitter, well, it can do the same job for every possible advertiser on the planet, as they relate to those Tweets, those accounts, and whatever messaging the advertiser might have to offer. In short, if Twitter can solve its signal to noise problem, it will also solve its revenue scale problem.”
Well, I’ve got some insights on how Twitter plans to make its first moves toward these ends.
First, Dick made it clear last week that Twitter will be widening the rollout of its “Promoted Tweets” product, which pushes Tweets from advertisers up to the top of a logged-in user’s timeline (coverage). Previously, brands could promote tweets only to people who followed those brands. (This of course drove advertisers to use Twitter’s “Promoted Accounts” product, which encouraged users to follow a brand’s Twitter handle. After all, if Promoted Tweets are only seen by your followers, you better have a lot of them).
Just recently, Twitter began to allow brands to push their Promoted Tweets to non-followers. This adds a ton of scale to a product that previously had limited reach. Remember, Twitter announced some pretty big numbers last week: more than 100 million “logged in” users, and nearly 400 million users a month on its website alone. Not to mention around 230 million tweets generated a day. All of these metrics are growing at a very strong clip, Twitter tells me.
All this begs we step back and ask an important question. Now that advertisers can push their Tweets to non-followers, how might they be able to target these ads?
Twitter’s answer, in short, is this: We’ll handle that, at least for now. The first iteration of the product does not allow the advertiser to determine who sees the promoted tweet. Instead, Twitter will find “lookalikes” – people who are similar in interests to folks who follow the brand. Characteristically, Twitter is going slow with this launch – as I understand it, initially just ten percent of its users will see this product.
(The implication of Twitter finding “lookalikes” should not be ignored – it means Twitter is confident in its ability to relate the interest graphs of its users one to another, at scale. This is part of the issue I wrote about in the “Ultimate Algorithm” post, a major and important development that is worth noting).
Now, I’ve spent many years working with marketers, and even if Twitter’s lookalike approach has scale, I know brands won’t be satisfied with a pure “black box” answer from the service. They’ll want some control over how they target, who they target to, and when their ads show up, among other things. Google, for example, gives advertisers an almost overwhelming number of data points as input to their AdWords and AdSense products. Facebook, of course, has extremely rich demographic and interest based targeting.
So how will Twitter execute targeting? Here are my thoughts:
- Interest targeting. Twitter will expose a dashboard that allows advertisers to target users based on a set of interests. I’d expect, for example, that a movie studio launching a summer action film might want to target Twitter users have shown interest in celebrities, Hollywood, and, of course, action movies.
How might that interest be known? There are plenty of clear signals: What a user posts, of course. But also what he or she retweets, replies to, clicks on in someone else’s tweet, or who they follow (and who that followed person follows, and, and….).
- Geotargeting. Say that movie is premiering in just ten cities across the country. Clearly, that movie studio will want to target its ads just in those regions. Nearly every major advertiser demands this capability – consumer packaged goods companies like P&G, for example, will want to compare their geotargeted ads to “shelf lift” in a particular region.
Twitter has told me it will have geotargeting capabilities shortly.
- Audience targeting. I’d expect that at some point, Twitter will expose various audience “buckets” to the marketer for targeting based on unique signals that Twitter alone has views into. These might include “active retweeters,” “influencers,” or “tastemakers” – folks who tend to find things first.
- Demographic targeting. This one I’m less certain of – Twitter doesn’t have a clear demographic dataset, the way Facebook does. However, neither does Google, and it figured out a way to include demos in its product line.
- Device/location targeting. Do you want your Promoted Tweets only on the web, or only on Windows? Maybe just iPads, or iOS more broadly? Perhaps just mobile, or only Android? And would you like location with that? You get the picture….
Given all this targeting and scale, the next question is: How will advertisers actually buy from Twitter? I think it’s clear that Twitter will adopt a model based on two familiar features: a cost-per-engagement model (the company already uses engagement as a signal to rank an ads efficacy) and a real-time second-price bidded auction. The company already exposes dashboards to its marketing partners on no less than five metrics, allowing them to manage their marketing presence on Twitter in real time. And its recently announced analytics product only adds on to that suite. Twitter has also said a self-serve platform will be open for business shortly, one that will allow smaller businesses to play on the service.
Next up? APIs that allows third parties to run Promoted Tweets, as well as help marketers manage their Twitter presence. Just as with Facebook and Google, expect a robust “SEO/SEM” ecosystem to develop around these APIs.
The cost per engagement model is worth a few more lines. If an ad does not resonate – is not engaged with in some way by users – it will fall off the page, an approach that has clearly worked well for Google. The company is very pleased with its early tests on engagement, which one source tells me is one to two orders of magnitude above traditional banner ads.
Finally, recall that Twitter also announced, and couched as very good news, that a large percentage of its users are “not logged in,” but rather consume Twitter content just as you or I might read a blog post. Fred writes about this in his post The Logged Out User. In that post, he estimates that nearly three in four folks on Twitter.com are “logged out.” That’s a huge audience. Expect ad products for those folks shortly, including – yes – display ads driven by cookies and/or other modeling parameters.
In short, after staring at this beast for many years, I think Twitter is well on its way to cracking the code for revenue. But let’s not forget the key part of this equation: The product itself. Ad product development is nearly always in lockstep with user product development.
Twitter recently surfaced a new tab for some of its users called “Activity”, and I was lucky enough to get it in my stream. It makes my timeline far better than it was. The “Mentions” tab (which we see as our own handle) is also far richer, showing follows, retweets, and favorites as well as replies and mentions. But there’s much, much more to do. My sense of the company now, however, is that it’s going to deliver on the opportunity we’ve all known it has ahead. It’s mostly addressed its infrastructure issues, Costolo told me, and is now focused on delivering product improvements through rapid iteration, testing, and deployment. I look forward to seeing how it all plays out.