Twitter To Roll Out “Promoted Tweets”: Initial Thoughts (Developing)

(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…

starbucks-tweet-041210-1.jpg(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 It’s on third party applications that drive traffic through the Twitter platform. Of course, Twitter has a huge amount of attention on, 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.

Just saying.

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.

33 thoughts on “Twitter To Roll Out “Promoted Tweets”: Initial Thoughts (Developing)”

  1. But tweets from individuals I have not explicitly chosen to follow have – since November – been appearing in my timeline. I remember thinking that Twitter was doing some surreptitious beta testing as preparation for this. The halycon Twitter days are over. The next new thing lurks on the horizon. Twitter is done.

  2. Any ideas on how this will impact list views? I consume a lot of my tweets through lists, rather than through the timeline since I can’t keep my eyes on it all day long.

    If we do a lot of irrelevant or irritating additions to the regular stream, we might find more people turning to lists.

  3. I think you take a moderate stance which I tend to agree with.

    Yes, in-stream ads will be a shock to longtime users. Newer users/new Normals users? Will probably assume they have always been there.

    If they are done well and are relatively unobtrusive I think they can be ok.

    One key parameter is what the UX will be in the stream, e.g.:
    – will it be 1 out of N tweets is an ad? If so, 1 in 5 seems way too much, but 1 in 10 or 1 in 20 feels absolutely fine.
    – or will they “stick to the top” like AdWords ads do, in that case that could get obnoxious.

    They will need to carefully test and design these approaches — and then make “unofficial” clients comply — which will take time. That is why they are starting with search on, it’s a much simpler problem and, to your point, more directly analogous to AdWords.

    Google has no direct analogue to in-stream ads.

    Note that FB experimented with in-stream and mostly has killed those off in favor of sidebar ads again. Digg is doing in-stream, although Digg is not as shining an example as it once was.

  4. Thanks for the insight, John. I agree that, if done well, this could be a good thing for Twitter and the ecosystem of developers and curators. The challenge, as you point out, will be to balance the opportunity with the expectations of the users. While it’s still very much a new medium, I’m glad that it’s taken Twitter a few years before they began introducing advertising directly on the platform. While I’m a bigger fan of the types of integrations we’re seeing off the platforms, direct advertising within the feed was inevitable. And, for all who complain about seeing them, there will be reach numbers to back up a brand’s investment in Twitter as an advertising medium.

  5. Great post John, insightful. I agree with most of what you say, and want to in fact address your closing statement:

    “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.”

    Exactly right John. After the dust settles from the initial scrutiny and backlash (we know there will be throughout the fickle Twitter-verse), the success of this new product offering will be based on the same thing that always determines success: the ability for agencies and brands to create a legitimate value exchange between the consumer, the platform, and the content served (in this case ads).

    I’m also not entirely sold on “resonance.” I like that Twitter has developed their own system of KPI’s or “Q-scores” for measuring success (they really didn’t have much choice), but I’m highly suspect of consumers interest/desire to RT or respond to these posts.
    I do think IF done right the promoted Tweets platform has the potential to net a higher percentage of qualified clicks and positively impact conversion, but what are the outstanding pieces of the resonance formula, what’s the % breakdown that determines success (and how will agencies/brands respond to the real-time reality of consumer sentiment)?

  6. It’s an important move for Twitter – now they have a business model it’s going to have to work; and that means giving ROI to advertisers.
    I suspect most people on Twitter are there for interaction not shopping; it’s the same on Facebook. So ROI for advertisers may be hard to achieve, if it is we’ll probably soon see other changes being rolled out.

  7. Hi John
    I guess they won’t be using for shortened URLs then! If they need to track clicks, including who clicked, they will surely need to run their own URL shortener to handle the tracking.
    So either, the AdAge mockup was just that, or they have some deal with Bit.Ly to get the clickstream data they need in the time within which they need it.

    But interesting, nevertheless.

  8. Twitter will have to update their developer TOS (if they haven’t already) to restrict third parties from filtering their feed to strip out the ads or monetize their app using their own ad server.

    Dick Costello’s experience with Ad Sense embedded into FeedBurner will be helpful instructive. Did anyone ever activate Feedburner ads? Did they generate any meaningful revenues?

  9. Think we’ll aslo hear the announcement of a premium ad-free Twitter subscription or client like Tweetie on the iPhone?

  10. I’m curious how “time” is handled.

    If the PromoTweet is inserted into my stream when I’m not looking (or when my stream is moving faster than I’m reading), how will I see it? Will they insert it multiple times?

    How will they know when I’ve read it?

    These PromoTweets make a departure from the traditional “timeline” concept: A subset of the market will need to see ad before others see it that a “resonance” score can be calculated. Except for the mid-stream ads inserted today by various third-party apps, this marks a departure from the traditional “timeline” concept.

    Regardless of time, this all obviously hinges of the potency of the “resonance” algos. Well, that along with the ability of brands (and eventually mom-and-pops) to create “conversation-worthy” content. Does the world have a good track record there? Especially in 140 chars? Are coupons and giveaways /that/ interesting? (Agreeing with @Christian Borges here)


  11. I’m curious to know the targeting capabilities provided to advertisers.

    Will advertisers be able to target based on IP address? Say only to user in US.

    How about targeting based on OS/browser? (mac application developers would want to show ads when tweets are being read on a Mac rather than PC, Google would want to promote download of Chrome for faster twittering experience to IE users!)

  12. “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.”

    Great post, John. But as Jen alludes in the first comment, your bolded statement isn’t completely accurate.

    With the revamping of the Retweet function, we’ve been seeing tweets from people that we don’t explicitly decide to follow for some time now. While the content presented within the tweet isn’t markedly different from what one would see in a “traditional” Retweet, the username and picture associated with it aren’t those of someone we follow. A small difference, but a significant one, and a precursor for a advertising program that relies on our accepting these interlopers of sorts.

  13. Great post! I believe this is only the beginning of a series of tests that Twitter will have to go through to find their AdWords/killer advertising app.

    My concern for this first attempt comes from the 3 parameters you mention that “sound an awful like the parameters that made AdWords a success” – I think that only one is really being replicated in “Promoted Tweets”:

    1) Ads are clearly marked as sponsored //the problem here is that most Google users cannot tell the difference between sponsored ads and regular search results to this day. By “clearly labeling” promoted tweets they will be setting those tweets apart as advertising much more stringently than Google does. Right for the consumer? Yes. Will it hurt their conversions? Probably.

    2) Relevance is part of the display methodology //Resonance, or relevance, is undoubtedly the hardest part of this puzzle. I know there will be a lot of iteration here, but I also think that the bar will be set so high, they will be playing a lot of catch-up and dealing with a lot of disappointed tweeters early on. This can definitely be overcome, but not without a lot of pain and explanations along the way.

    3) Ads are delivered in the parlance of the medium //No problem! 🙂

    But – despite the public pain they will go through to get this off the ground, this is a very exciting time for marketers and I have very high hopes for them figuring out how to make this a huge success. As an e-commerce marketer, I see a tremendous opportunity to reach my consumers with relevant messages. Can’t wait to see more about this!

  14. This is important because it will force marketers to further the shift toward earned opportunities, by tying in even this paid media with quality and relevance even further than AdWords’ Quality Score does.

    The challenge I see is the pace of Twitter – meaning that marketers will need a whole lot of Tweets to stay on the radar because the shelf life of each is so brief (this is, of course, assuming that the Twitter algorithm is good at screening out those who try to game the system).

    In that case, how do marketing plans need to adjust? I think they need to be devoted to more modes of customer engagement.

    I go into more detail about what types of tweets will be most effective at building resonance, and how to shift marketing strategies, in a longer blog post here:

  15. Very helpful analysis! I’ve been wondering what they were going to try.

    I think you’re right-on with the import of their resonance parameters…

    And especially the relevance aspect and the imperative it imposes on marketers.

    I’m still a bit skeptical of it ultimately producing the revenues the investors may be hoping for or the results that the marketers will find sufficient to motivate more ad purchases.

    And I’d imagine they’re all a bit anxious about it as well.

    So much depends on the evolution of how Twitter is actually used and by how many…

    But it’ll make an interesting tale.

    However I can’t imagine there’ll be a lot of re-tweeting ad messages unless there’s a continuous stream of actually useful freebies being offered.

    And that’s a strategy that adds another cost for the marketer.

  16. Someone asked whether this will work with lists. I’m another one who rarely views Twitter other than via a list. While I’d be interested in seeing an ad for a free cup of coffee at Starbucks, I can’t really picture that ad fitting into the context of most of my lists.

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  18. Good for developers. Good for marketers. Hmmmm…. is it good for me? As Jen and Austin mentioned, we already see messages from people we don’t follow, from retweet-happy people who I then delete.

    Pretty hard any more to find the “social” in social media. Perhaps I’ll just get a dog. That way, I can take him for a walk and bump into folks who say, “Oh, what a cute dog!” It might be the beginning of a relationship.

    “Social Media” sites have all become “Selling Media” sites. Someday, the users will figure it out. Except that they think they can sell their stuff there, too. So, maybe not.

  19. Great post, John.

    What I find most interesting is how Twitter’s ad platform continues a trend towards advertising that is increasingly useful to the customer. In an environment of open networks, if ads aren’t relevant and earning our attention on their merits, they will wither and die.

    Amazingly, the advertising business is starting to realize it has to create unique differentiated value for its customers, rather than trying to lure them back into forced relationships. (You can also see this in Hulu, where users pick the most relevant ad for them to see before their show starts.)

    Maybe media companies (many of whom are still hell-bent on tying us into closed systems again with paywalls, iPads, etc.) can learn something here from the ad guys?

    I posted on this subject in more detail at:

    David Rogers
    Columbia Business School
    Center on Global Brand Leadership

  20. I’ve been in online advertising for years starting with when they launched their “Sponsored Listings” product for the long tail of advertisers. I’m sure this will be a relative success for the big brand advertisers, especially ones that promote quick / easy free stuff and have a powerful brand.

    John, you said, “…only “good” ads will make it into our Twitter streams.”

    If Twitter decides to go after the long-tail of advertisers, each of those advertisers and each of their individual ads will need to be auditioned before the “resonance” can be scored. Will this be thousands of promoted tweets for each and every individual ad? My guess it will take at least hundreds of thousands of impressions before they could truly measure performance accurately.

    If this is the case, imaging thousands of advertisers with tens or hundreds of thousands of ads being auditioned to people like you and me. In this case we’d surely see “bad” ads from time to time. With search ads it isn’t a big deal if they are “bad” or irrelevant since they aren’t really interuptive, but a “bad” tweet inserted into your feed would be vastly more intrusive.

    Maybe Twitter will have some super powerful machine learning that will reduce the auditioning time of these “promoted tweets”, but in my experience, even with fantastic algorithms, you still need a LOT of ad impressions to gauge true relevance.

  21. Twitter potentially sit on a goldmine with this advertising model, with the user data available to them and the opportunity of launching geo-targeted ads this could prove a huge success.

    Geo-targeted advertising for local businesses displaying targeted ads to their followers in their local area whilst they are on the move. An ever expanding usage of Twitter users on mobile devices with apps such as Tweetie opens the doors to geo-targeting allowing a lot of businesses who didn’t otherwise “get Twitter”now… “Get it!”

    Is Resonance Score the new Quality Score? With the right approach and guys behind this business model, a whole ton of factors could be built into the scoring of ads and distribution/frequency of how they are shown…

    A load of these factors are discussed over at Clubnet Search Marketing in the comments.

    Read more at: Twitter’s Advertising Platform ‘Promoted Tweets’ (

  22. Relevance is the key word; no pun intended! How is Twitter going to determine what’s most relevant to a particular user? They’ll target based on key words which means little in the absence of word sense disambiguation. i.e. their ability to disambiguate word meanings within the context of how they are used.

    They need to buy this technology to accomplish the delivery of ads based on real relevance-key words do not deliver relevancy.

    Acquisition time Twitter!

  23. @JULIE KNOWLES I would like to see dynamic PPC parameters introduced such as {KeyWord} and {Hashtag}, this already would increase ad relevance.

    As far as semantic relevance goes though, there are a ton of factors that Twitter could build into it’s new advertising platform that ensure ads are relevant and targeted.

    I just hope Twitter don’t f*ck it up.

  24. I have the account on Twitter, but i barely use it. I don’t understand what is so great about it. It doesn’t cover the amount of possibilities Facebook does (or any other social network). Or maybe it does if you pay. But the first time i hear that you have to pay to have more optopns on Twitter hmmm… Well maybe it’s because i barely use it 🙂 i don’t know what’s so great about youtube either. Isn’t it easier to convert flv to avi ?
    I decided not to use the net so much, now i just prefer enjoying stuff i already have on my pc, Internet kind of gets on my nerves. Especially if the connection is no good.

  25. I think the designers have done a really great job – a lot of designing, image edit, developing… and I take it, it is not all in vain – since Twitter has ever increasing popularity, may users would like to get their tweets promoted, and it may be a very effective tool of promotion on the whole.

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