Twitter: First Publisher to Directly Counsel Advertisers on How to Blur the Line?


At a recent keynote by Twitter Canada head Kirstine Stewart, I was struck by how she advised companies to engage their audiences with rich content first and foremost.

In this regard, Twitter executives seem to play a hybrid role. Maybe it’s just the lower headcount, but advocates like Stewart have to walk the fine line of explaining the ad units to potential buyers, while urging companies to properly ‘get’ social media and to (yes) focus more on their followers and their unpaid content than on their ads. It’s as if a Twitter exec has to be at once Matt Cutts, extolling the value of quality content, *and* an ad sales exec, explaining how ad units work and how they sort of blend in natively with the user experience. Matt Cutts *never* does the latter.

Twitter’s stance is smart. It needs companies on board, and it needs them to have confidence that their non-paid content is valued. It also needs these companies to earn followers, and the only way you earn followers is by adding value to people’s lives, not by spamming them with low-quality ads. Mitch Joel calls it utilitarian marketing (though I think I prefer the word ‘useful,’ since utilitarian has at least two other connotations… perhaps Godin’s Free Prize Inside is also worth a re-read in this context).

Yes, you could probably get by running a service with a lot of civilians posting content and companies focusing almost exclusively on advertising. But it turns out that companies are really good at producing engaging content — life’s not so different on Twitter than it is out there on corporate websites (without which Google Search would have to sift through lower quality and less content overall in its attempts to find nuggets of quality in the massive database of content it has indexed).

Here’s the same theme spelled out on Twitter’s ad sales page. Unremarkable? After all, third party services like Hubspot and Hootsuite provide similar advice. Well… can you imagine a page on Google’s ad sales side telling folks how to “write great content”?

Because Twitter is newer, and it isn’t the Web, it needs to continue to build more “there, there,” or there will be nothing compelling to serve ads against. Companies are being asked to build Twitter’s platform *and* pay for the privilege of advertising on it. Fair? Unfair? Today’s Tom Sawyer he gets by on you? Well, companies will do both if it’s to their advantage.

What’s also interesting is the diversity of approaches companies may take. Some might choose minimal engagement and using Twitter ad formats primarily… to build brand awareness or even as a performance marketing vehicle. Others will be good social media citizens and tweet just the right amount, more often than not connecting at some deep level with users… like my friends at Fiesta Farms, a grocery store in the Seaton Village neighborhood of Toronto. I love them to death.

Political leaders, nonprofits, and government organizations also seem more suited to the Twitter platform than to some other means of getting the word out online. They can tweet events or blog posts or little nuggets of inspiration to a growing list of followers, and also natively post promoted content to accelerate their user base. Compare that to the awkwardness of some political leader trying to bid on keywords in AdWords to accelerate their outreach.

Financially and in terms of volume of content, Twitter may succeed against some of the naysayers. It’s remarkable how much they’ll be relying on companies (and leaders, and organizations) to build both their content base and their revenue base.

What are the chances of success? Reasonably good, given the emergence of legions of professional community managers and digital advertising practitioners looking for engaging assignments, combined with generalized disaffection with behemoth Facebook and the faux feel of working with Google+. These professionals’ execution will be pivotal to Twitter’s future; certainly Twitter only needs a tiny fraction of corporate advertising budgets to take a flyer on their platform to enjoy substantial revenue growth. And never say no to those nonprofit and gov’t dollars, either :).

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