Our little baby is all grown up.  Just 30 months ago, Twitter was flying under the radar and people interested in microblogging might very well have joined Identica, Pounce, Plurk or other lookalike services.   By early 2010, Twitter handled 50 million tweets per day and had become crucial to hundreds of brands and tens of millions of people, but it still had just one visible (and arguably modest) means of support—search engine deals with Microsoft and Yahoo.  As of today, Twitter is getting a job and earning its keep with the rollout of an ad platform. 

As it grew and became a more important communications channel, Twitter found its business model the focus of intense scrutiny; for example, when Ev Williams failed to announce an ad platform at SXSW, there was palpable disappointment among bloggers and other observers.  This week, Twitter is addressing that disappointment with the rollout of its new Promoted Tweet program, which offers some benefits to brands.  What are those benefits and what are the limitations for marketers?

Promoted Tweets will allow brands to pay for tweets that are displayed at the top of Twitter search results pages.  For now, the system is based on the dollar amounts bid for terms, but soon Twitter will implement a system for evaluating the quality or “resonance” of an ad.  Much like with Digg Ads or Google Adwords, higher quality ads will be rewarded.  In fact, according to the New York Times, a Promoted Tweet could migrate from being a paid ad to a free tweet.  Eventually, these Promoted Tweets will likely find their way off of the Twitter search page and into tweetsreams, but how or if this happens will depend on Twitter’s experience with the new program.

This gives brands a chance to create tweets that don’t disappear right away.  The beauty and challenge of Twitter has been that brands have an equal footing with every single person on the platform.  Each tweet, whether from a Fortune 100 company or a person with 10 followers, enters the tweet stream equally and disappears quickly as newer tweets appear. 

Now, brands will have the opportunity to buy some constancy, giving Promoted Tweets a chance to be seen by more Twitterers.  If consumers find a brand’s Promoted Tweets unwelcome, intrusive, or overly self-interested, the resonance will be poor and those ads will disappear.  Conversely, a Promoted Tweet that resonates with consumers will become nexus of retweets and replies, sparking dialog and value for other Twitterers.

What are the risks?  I see few risks:

  • Is Twitter’s disclosure sufficient?  As you’ll note in the image above, Promoted Tweets will be defined by tiny text that denote a tweet was “Promoted by…” and will also turn a different color when users roll their cursor over the ad.  Is this sufficient disclosure per FTC guidelines?  I believe so, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if someone challenges whether the differentiation between content (tweets) and ads (Promoted Tweets) is sufficiently “clear and conspicuous.” This shouldn’t prevent brands from exploring this new and valuable ad program, but it is worth monitoring.
  • Promoted Tweets are no substitute for true one-to-one dialog.  Brands should avail themselves of the opportunity to gain attention using Promoted Tweets but must use them to motivate dialog and not just talk about themselves in typical advertising fashion.  Moreover, buying an ad is not a surrogate for creating great brand experiences and having real one-to-one relationships and discussions with consumers.   The New York Times suggests, “if a new movie is getting negative reaction, the studio could use the ads to link to a positive review, for example.”  That is the sort of thinking that could create more trouble than benefit in social channels, because no ad will buy a studio or brand out of a bad consumer experience. 

    A single “Promoted Tweet” cannot overcome a flood of negative sentiment, and in fact the wider the gap in sentiment between a Promoted Tweet and the thousands of authentic, free, consumer-generated tweets, the greater the risk of backlash.   Faced with a flood of negative publicity, a brand that buys a Promoted Tweet to welcome consumer interaction about the problem with create dialog that results in positive experiences, but the brand that attempts to change the conversation or use a Promoted tweet as a bully pulpit is likely to spark even more negativity. 

 While Promoted Tweets seem good for Twitter, people and brands, it’s important marketers understand the uses and limitations of Twitter’s ad program.  This may be paid media, but it is a few drops of paid media in a sea of earned media.  Done right, Promoted Tweets will spark engagement and influence; done wrong, the paid media will fail to resonate and quickly disappear; done really wrong, Promoted Tweets could create negative reaction, causing more harm than good.