Do you use Twitter for the commercials? Ask around, and the answer is a resounding “No!” pretty much 100% of the time. People use social networks to talk to their friends, discover great content, and participate in real-time events -- not to be interrupted by ads.
Still Twitter, in its most revenue-oriented move yet, just released an API for its advertising products. And, surprise -- a lot of people are nervous about it. Why? They think it might sabotage the Twitter user experience or enslave Twitter to its brand partners.
But I for one am excited. I think we are finally unlocking something special for marketers online. Twitter’s announcement points to an optimistic future for the relationship between users, social platforms, and the marketers that tend to foot the bill.
Brands have been looking to spend more money on Twitter for a while now, and without APIs it’s been very challenging for agencies to deploy and optimize significant budgets in social at the scale that big advertisers need. Consequently, a pre-API Twitter has been the domain of what I call "artisanal ad buys" that were written, uploaded, activated and optimized by hand, and measured largely by hand. These APIs will help brands move to a more sophisticated model for using ads on the platform.
But if marketers think the same old tactics are going to work just because an ads API is now available, then they are sorely mistaken. Social networks in general, and Twitter specifically, are a tantalizing combination of mass audiences and user attention that is difficult to replicate in pretty much any other medium short of the Super Bowl. Yet, here we are in 2013 and most social networks still haven’t figured out how to monetize those audiences very effectively.
The conundrum is that all these people are there, but direct-response type ads don’t work very well because users are not really shopping-oriented during their Twitter time. Rather than shop, users want to hang out and interact with interesting stuff. Brands that want to wring marketing benefits from social networks have to adjust their expectations for the medium from direct shopping cart conversion to the creation of pre-purchase intent and increased consideration. Once they’ve adjusted to that reality, marketers must also understand that the actual way to create that pre-purchase intent is not through billboards or display advertising, but rather by doing precisely what the users are doing: hanging out and publishing interesting stuff.
Twitter clearly understands this, and has built its entire monetization scheme around native actions that exist on the platform. This is clever for a host of reasons. First, it means that ads are not interruptive -- they can exist in the context of normal platform interactions, so users are less inclined to automatically filter them out as irrelevant to their Twitter time. Second, it means that ads are naturally mobile-optimized, since promoted products fit into the exact same boxes and interactions that normal mobile Twitter actions do. Third, and most important, it opens up a wealth of creative opportunities for brands to earn direct consumer engagement. Earned media used to be the invisible hand in the marketplace, but thanks to social data it’s not so invisible any more.
What does it really entail to earn direct consumer engagement on these platforms? Brands have a unique opportunity to become the most interesting person in the room every single day of the year. As well-funded marketing organizations, they have the resources to create high-production storylines about their brand, products and related lifestyles. Just a fraction of the resources required to put on a late-night TV ad can be used to flight content in social platforms, measure the earned media response, and optimize the next batch of content appropriately.
The goal is to trigger earned media uptake of a brand message with paid activation, or get users to create and share that branded earned media for themselves. Either way, this is a very different paradigm that Twitter’s ad units are perfectly suited to.
Of course, moves toward monetization on social platforms won’t be greeted with unanimous praise. Users should be rightly concerned that they might be inundated with ads as Twitter is forced to pay off its investors and eventually its shareholders. Twitter has to wonder if it's staffed up to service high-maintenance brands from around the world, and whether it has the analytics backbone to satisfy a horde of data-driven social marketers. And finally, brands should wonder if they are equipped to thrive in a world of hybrid ad units that combine the disciplines of owned media and paid media in service of generating earned.
In the end, this change is an exciting inflection point for Twitter, its users and its advertisers. Brands can now efficiently create pre-purchase intent in creative combinations impossible with magazine pages or radio spots. Users will get new features and experiences built by those brands, and Twitter itself will soon ascend into the ranks of profitable tech companies that made the leap from startup to enterprise. Things are changing -- but if brands get this right and master the tactics that earn real engagement, then some day we very well overhear someone saying “I use Twitter for the commercials.”