(image from Ad Age) The NYT has broken news of Twitter’s initial version of its native ad platform, which it is calling “Promoted Tweets.” I will acknowledge being briefed on this news prior to its breaking, and I did promise to withhold any comment until the news had been publicly broken.
Now that the Times has provided me with a reason to sound off, here are my initial thoughts on the program.
First the details. I’ll stick to what has been publicly reported, as that only seems fair. Obviously I’ve been thinking about this for some time, given I first theorized “TweetSense” back in 2008. But as to what the NYT has reported:
The advertising program, which Twitter calls Promoted Tweets, will show up when Twitter users search for keywords that the advertisers have bought to link to their ads. Later, Twitter plans to show promoted posts in the stream of Twitter posts, based on how relevant they might be to a particular user.
The news is not so much that Twitter will show sponsored tweets in search results – after all, we’re pretty used to that, thanks to AdWords. The real news is the second part: Twitter will include sponsored tweets in the “the stream of Twitter posts, based on how relevant they might be to a particular user.”
Read that sentence again. And think about what it means.
Let’s go to the basics of marketing, which have to do with attention, message, and return on investment. First, attention. Where is the attention on Twitter? Well, truth be told, more than 70% of it is not on Twitter.com. It’s on third party applications that drive traffic through the Twitter platform. Of course, Twitter has a huge amount of attention on Twitter.com, and with its acquisition of a popular iPhone app, as well as creation of a semi-official Blackberry app, it will have even more “owned and operated” attention out in the mobile world as well. But the majority will remain out in the developer ecosystem, with apps like TweetDeck, Seesmic, and Brizzly. This platform will drive ads out into that previously anaerobic ecosystem. That is a Good Thing.
Regardless of where Twitter users consumer their Twitter feeds, the reality is this: Twitter’s new ad platform will mark the first time, ever, that users of the service will see a tweet from someone they have not explicitly decided to follow.
And that marks an important departure for the young service. One that I think is both defensible, and, if done well, could be seminal to both Twitter and to its partners – both new (marketers) and old (developers). More on that when I come back….
(Posting this, taking a break to get kids to bed, will update soon.)
OK I am back. So I pointed out what I believe to be the major shift in Twitter’s ad platform – that its users will see stuff they’ve not elected to follow. The key question then becomes, as it was with Google’s AdWords – will that which they see be relevant, useful, valuable?
Twitter Dick Costolo responds to this question in the Times piece thusly:
Twitter will measure what it calls resonance, which takes into account nine factors, including the number of people who saw the post, the number of people who replied to it or passed it on to their followers, and the number of people who clicked on links. If a post does not reach a certain resonance score, Twitter will no longer show it as a promoted post. That means that the company will not have to pay for it, and users will not see ads they do not find useful, Mr. Costolo said.
In short, “resonance” is Twitter’s quality score, its measure of whether an ad is useful (Google uses clicks on ads in a similar fashion). That Twitter is including this feature is, to my mind, crucial – it means advertisers have to add to the conversation that is Twitter, or face losing their ability to insert commercial messaging into the Twitter stream.
Initial response to this program – at least in my own Twitter stream, chock full of new media pundits and marketers as may be – is mixed. @Scoble isn’t convinced, but he’s open to hearing more. Others have praised it, and predictably, some have claimed they are forever done with Twitter if it forces ads into their streams.
My reaction is this: This is to be expected, even welcomed, in particular by developers. The initial program is very limited – there are only six initial advertisers – but Twitter has set some pretty clear parameters. First, the ads will be clearly marked as such. Second, the ads will have to perform – and that performance is determined by Twitter’s users, as understood through Twitter’s own algorithms. And third, the ads will be delivered in the grammar of the service itself, not secondary to it.
Sounds an awful lot like the parameters that made AdWords a major success, if you ask me.
I’m not predicting Promoted Tweets will travel the same path, but it sure would have been dumb to ignore the lessons of the most successful digital advertising format in the history of the Web.
Now, on to why I think this is good for the developer ecosystem (I’ll get to whether this is good for marketers next). My initial sense is yes, this is a good thing. Twitter will almost certainly roll this system out through their API, allowing developers to run the same ads in their own curations of the Twitter firehose. And while, as with AdSense, Promoted Tweets may not allow developers to cover 100% of their costs, it sure will help. And as the system develops, and more advertisers join, developers will start to understand how much revenue they might expect from the platform, allowing them to plan for investment and value creation on top of the base dollars they can expect from Twitter.
Again, we’ve seen this movie before, and the web is better for it.
Now, as to marketers.
Unlike with AdWords, which launched in 2001 to minimal fanfare and with a base of mostly small business marketers (the kind who might have spent with the Yellow Pages, or the kind who understood how to game GoTo back in the day), this new system is launching with major brand advertisers who have already committed to “being in the conversation” that Twitter represents.
It’s a safe way to start, free of the wild west, gray market early days of AdSense/AdWords. But to truly scale, Twitter is going to have to open up their platform to anyone with a credit card and the desire to buy their way into the dialog. That’s both scary and potentially very powerful.
Twitter is already open to anyone with an account and something to say. But only those with money can buy a Promoted Tweet. I look forward to the day when the system evolves to let pure capitalism work out its kinks in real time, through the Twitter universe. The key, to my mind, is the concept of resonance. If Twitter gets this right, only “good” ads will make it into our Twitter streams. That will force marketers to mind what they say when given the privilege of being inserted into our feeds. To think hard about adding value to the conversation that surrounds their brands.
And honestly, isn’t that the kind of behavior we’d hope for?
What do you think of Promoted Tweets? I’m eager to hear. Leave a comment or hit me back on @johnbattelle. I’ll be listening.