April 13, 2010

Will Twitter's New Ad Plan Backfire?

Greetings. As a somewhat enthusiastic Twitter user (@laurenweinstein) I've been waiting for quite some time to hear about Twitter's advertising/monetization plans for their service.

We need wait no longer, as Twitter has now made their ad paradigm quite explicit, and perhaps not surprisingly, this includes ultimately inserting ads ("promoted tweets") directly into Twitter users' tweeting timelines across all Twitter-capable platforms -- at least that's the very strong implication.

As regular readers know, I am most definitely not an Internet ad hater, nor a promoter of ad blocking (e.g. see: Blocking Web Ads -- And Paying the Piper).

But as I consider the implications of ads within Twitter timelines, a whole set of interesting issues comes to mind -- most of which are likely to be exacerbated by the linear, serial nature of most persons' Twitter usage, frequently through specialized, API-based desktop display applications.

Many Twitter users -- especially those who (in their own opinions, anyway) use Twitter mainly for comparatively serious purposes -- tend to be rather protective of their timelines. Twitter timelines often are viewed as something of a "publicly private" space --- open but to a degree controlled. Twitter obviously recognized this early on, by providing a mechanism for users to block any other Twitter user from a given timeline.

But we can assume that Twitter won't be handing us an easy means for blocking in-timeline Twitter ads. And such ads will be particularly difficult to ignore, as they'll likely appear seemingly at random amidst other discussions, and right there mixed in with everything else -- not off to the side somewhere like a more conventional Web page ad. (Twitter is talking about ads staying at the top of search results in their current search implementation, but it isn't clear to me at this point how they could avoid mixing ads in with conventional timeline streams in existing API-based Twitter display implementations.)

As the Wicked Witch of the West might have warned Twitter, this is going to have to be handled "very delicately" -- because the opportunities for pushback are numerous.

Many firms, organizations, government entities, government officials, and of course all manner of ordinary folks who use Twitter may not take kindly to seeing explicit ads in their streams -- especially if they've taken care to weed out spammers in the past. Commercial ads in government streams seem especially problematic. Ads for competing products and services in corporate Twitter timelines may not be particularly appreciated by the "owners" of those Twitter accounts.

Of course Twitter could offer ad-free accounts to governments and the like, and even could provide paid "premium" ad-free accounts that anybody could buy.

But it seems likely that some Twitter users will find their own creative ways to "strike back" if they find Twitter advertising to be annoying.

Specialized programs to prevent the display of Twitter ads would seem a near certainty to be developed, depending on the ease with which Twitter advertising could be programmatically identified going forward -- though this doesn't remove the actual ads from the timelines.

A more low-tech approach that many Twitter users are likely to take -- given that the ads will be so "in your face" directly in their timelines, would be to immediately retort with nasty comments about the products or services being promoted. The ease with which such comments could be quickly retweeted would make this approach almost irresistible to many persons. And we'd likely see the development of automatic Twitter "robots" to perform the same functions automatically.

If you're an adherent to the "any publicity is good publicity" school of advertising, the increased name recognition that such tweeting and retweeting might engender could perhaps be viewed as a positive multiplier effect on any given ad-buy reach.

On the other hand, if your ads annoy a Twitter user with followers who tend to respect that users' opinions, do you necessarily want to see reply tweets going out to a thousand or a million persons along the lines of: "That product really sucks big time. I wouldn't use it if you paid me. I hope someone files a class action lawsuit against those crooks! You're far better off using ..."

Hmm ...

Fundamentally, what I'm suggesting is that the social and psychological dynamics of how people will react to seeing uninvited ads in Twitter timelines is obviously very much an unknown, and I would assert that trying to draw comparisons from other social networking ecosystems (or other Web advertising models in general) may not yield trustworthy or representative data points for comparison.

Once Twitter actually does start inserting ads into timelines, we should see the reality of reactions in short order.

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It promises to be interesting.


Posted by Lauren at April 13, 2010 03:48 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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