Twitter Advertising: Why Small Biz Should (Probably) Run Screaming

twitter advertising small businessWithout fail, there are always a few befuddled stares at the gym each morning when the redheaded chick covered with tattoos switches one of the TVs to Squawk Box. But I digress. This morning’s conversation? The announcement (while not new, but just picking up media steam) that Twitter has partnered with American Express to offer 10,000 small business card members early access to their new tweet-based ad platform.

Twitter’s no stranger to conversations about how they make money. This new partnership is the most publicly facing move they’ve made yet to own an ad-based revenue model. And while I adore Dick Costelo with every inch (OK, nearly – I have no carnal knowledge) of my being, his post is probably going to guarantee I’ll never be asked by American Express to be a contributing writer to their OPEN Forum. Because I think there are entirely too many unexplored holes in:

  • The true nature of Twitter ads
  • The partnership and implications for small business owners
  • Why this ad platform is against everything important to brands of every size and industry that have opted to integrate Twitter into their marketing strategy.

Before I get going, the conclusions that follow are derived solely based on this morning’s Squawk Box report and articles on the subject in VentureBeat, the LA Times, CNBC, and PC World.

The True Nature of Twitter Ads

For those unaware, Twitter ads are also known as Promoted Tweets. This means that, Twitter users might see your ad in two scenarios:

  • When using the actual Twitter interface, promoted tweets might come up in search results when users enter a targeted keyword associated with your ad.
  • When using the actual Twitter interface, promoted tweets might come up at the top a user’s timeline who is following the brand or a user who is targeted using the ad targeting tools.

Here’s what’s not discussed – but should be. 42% of Twitter users use third-party apps to interact with Twitter (as Twitter’s native web app is confusing, non-intuitive, and cumbersome at best). While that number is as of May 2011 and Twitter has since acquired TweetDeck, one of the most widely used third-party apps (interestingly enough, just a week following the above news), third-party apps are still preferred by Twitter power users and with platforms like HootSuite and ArgyleSocial growing in popularity, potential Twitter advertisers should be concerned.

Because third-party app users can opt-out of Promoted Tweets.  To demonstrate, here’s a screenshot of my HootSuite preferences where I can opt-out.

No Promoted Tweets

While it appears as if TweetDeck users cannot (shocker) opt-out of Promoted Tweets (though some say they’ve never seen one), it’s still enough for any potential advertiser to be concerned about. It’s also unclear whether these new ads will be classified by the Twitter ecosystem as Promoted Tweets, but I sincerely doubt they’ll be launching a platform with 83 different kinds of ad classifications. Ads are ads…

The bottom line for potential advertisers: Before signing up for Twitter’s ad program, you have to have a full understanding of your user demographic. If you’re looking to acquire meaningful audience members (Jesus – more on this in a few bulletpoints) in your space, you’d best know if they’re using the actual Twitter interface or third-party apps that will allow your Promoted Tweets to be seen. And if you’re looking to garner the attention of social power users, you can bet your ass they’re not using the Twitter’s web-based interface. WHO IS SEEING YOUR ADS?

The Implications for Small Business Owners

American Express has built a reputation on their love for and fostering of small businesses, which is why the news (or lack thereof) on this new “benefit” for their small business card members perplexes me. If you’re really out to help small businesses make smart decisions that will increase revenues and (let’s be honest, increase their spending so they can pay you more interest on purchases), where’s the education element?

American Express needs to offer their cardholders full disclosure on not just how Twitter advertising works, but how cardholders (and non-cardholders who just read their OPEN Forum) can determine if this is the best bang for their advertising budget buck. As no stranger to the world of pay-per-click advertising with the work I do in the SEO realm, Twitter ads offer a new level of disengagement. Let’s discuss.

With well-built search engine-based ads, potential customers are reached at a decision making point, triggered by keyword searches. Twitter’s platform is no different. But I don’t go to Twitter to make a buying decision. I go to Twitter for conversations, relationships, news, information, and advice.

Thus, I think it’s safe to say that the definition of conversion differs greatly. In search engines, you’re acquiring a buyer/engager that is closer to the conversion-to-sale process than in a social realm. With Twitter ads for followers, you’re gaining a disengaged asset…that’s not really even an asset. It’s why Facebook ads that drive fans are more effective than ones that drive conversions to non-Facebook destinations (external site-targeted ads report abandonment rates as high as 75%). Social media isn’t about closing sales. It’s about relationships. Which brings me to my third beef with the new Twitter ad platform – for businesses of any size.

As a note, I also think it’s curious for AmEx to engage in this partnership with Twitter given the statistics in this American Express OPEN Forum post by Guy Kawasaki. It has some interesting statistics on comments as a function of originating social network…and Twitter? Dead last. As a blogger, I’ll back Guy’s findings up 100%. So if your goal is to acquire followers to get them to your blog to build lasting relationships, you might wanna rethink how much you invest in your Twitter ad strategy to acquire followers.

Why the Twitter Ad Platform is Against Every “Best Practice” in Social Media

We’ve all seen the horrific spam that came through Twitter about a year ago, promising thousands of followers in only a few days. Aside from the fact that the spam was prolific enough to make you want to punch a little baby penguin, it as spam for another reason: follower numbers are complete bullshit.

  • It’s still low-level follower acquisition. Advertisers under the new platform will pay when a new person follows their account from the Promoted Tweet. It’s automation – pure and simple. Getting more followers doesn’t equate to a higher level of influence. That takes time. With what you’ll spend on follower acquisition, you could probably hire an experienced marketing professional. This math is based on current ad spending requirement of $15,000 for three months, which equates to a $60,000 annual salary. Not to shabby. I’m thinking that even at $40,000 a year, you could hire a great advocate for your brand who would go out, research people, and develop relationships with them online and skip the automation.
  • Followers don’t equate to conversations. Numbers stopped being relevant – well, a long time ago – and especially with the introduction of Twitter Lists. Especially private lists. If you’re a brand with a gazillion followers, that’s fantastic – lots of people in your holding tank. But what I care about as a marketer is the HOW and WHY those people choose to stick around. If I have a client with 500 followers that garners a ton of retweets, @ replies and my website metrics demonstrate that Twitter is a tool effectively delivering the results we’ve been targeting, that means a helluva lot. And it means more than looking at some account with 25,000 followers with a stream filled with broadcast-only messages and no engagement.
  • It belittles that social media is about relationships. Current cost-per-follower (CPF) rates for Twitter advertising sit between $2.50 and $4.00. Are you willing, as a business, to spend between $2,500 and $4,000 to acquire 1,000 new followers? And might I add, acquiring them doesn’t do any good by itself. It’s still up to you to develop a relationship with them once you get them inside your virtual Twitter door. Again, social media isn’t about collecting people. It’s about giving people a reason to see your brand as human and letting them own the conversation. You can acquire fans on Facebook for significantly less – that is, if your target audience really lives and interacts on Facebook. But the shit of it is, you still have to talk with them, and not to them, once you get them to your fan page. Bummer, huh?

The Net-Net

I’m not anti-advertising. You can even check out the success stories for Promoted Tweets during 2010. Great digital advertising isn’t just about American Express offering small business cardholders early access to Twitter’s public advertising platform. In fact, that’s the (really) crappy side of the story.

Great digital advertising:

  • Establishes goals and metrics before the campaigns even begin
  • Targets an audience at the point of decision or interest
  • Drive that audience to a destination
  • Builds a destination that produces the desired result
  • Reviews metrics, and then wash/rinse/repeat.

As someone who works with tech and startup companies with powerful and meaningful product releases as a matter of course, the news about American Express’ partnership with Twitter has completely missed the mark.

I have little information that tells me – and someone who might advise her clients to explore the ad platform (as we have incredible success with Facebook ads with suitable client accounts) – why small businesses shouldn’t run screaming from this nebulous new ad platform. There’s no win I can see yet for small business owners, especially at CPF rates, when they could hire a reasonably-salaried marketing professional to be the human driving their online brand and not just acquiring followers…

but spending the time required to understand what they want and how their brand can deliver those wants in spades – and seamlessly.

Sara Beth Allen
Sara Beth Allen

This is my favorite that you have ever written (ever). I look at promoted Tweets like the recent McDonald's situation and don't know why people pay to be on a conversational tool. It got so old hearing about the Consumer Electronics Show. I'm probably the last person still logging into being bombarded with this crap. I see all the mistakes.  When brands create a witty saying/hashtag and pay thousands of dollars for the love...I see no proof that there's long lived enthusiasm. Often I have no idea that a particular drink is behind the trending yet lame hashtag #sundaysexy? I'm trying to get to that brand marketing still needs to have something to do with the brand. I'm over the unwitty witty hashtag. #momsaregreat The best advice to small business owners is to honestly have fun on Twitter. Enthusiasm for the products as opposed to total smoke blowing - it's awesome. 

Josh Davis
Josh Davis

Good article. The only thing I would note is that they actually minimum ad budget for an official Twitter add campaign is $15,000 and that can be spread over three months. So is $5,000 per month, not $15,000.

Daniel Rose
Daniel Rose

I've never understood promoted tweets. It seems to me that it's totally counter intuitive to the whole "social" part of social media. If I wanted to advertise, why wouldn't I use the radio?

Annie Sisk
Annie Sisk

DUDE. I had no idea HootSuite could exorcise the demonic Promoted Tweets. You had me at ... well, that, actually. I am not sure I agree that follower #s are *complete* BS, maybe just *mostly BS* ... but I couldn't agree more about the general note of caution sounded. I routinely surprise new clients by telling them "No, I don't think you need to be on Twitter at all" or "No, you do NOT need a Facebook page" - then I explain the whole concept of "going where your prospects are" and the wisdom inherent in not spending cash + time going to places they're ... not. Just like Rich outlines with his restaurant client, there is NO one-size-fits-all to social media marketing. And generally speaking, the easiest expenditures to make are usually the least worthwhile. 

Digital I
Digital I

I've determined the free version of Hootsuite sends the promo-tweets. You can switch it off in the prefs, and it will make them disappear temporarily, but it switchs back once you close prefs. Hootsuite doesn't give you "ad-free" unless you pay.  I can understand that. Business is business, and the one or two that come through at present I can live with, until I can justify the monthly cost of Pro.  BTW, the promoted tweet I got was for this AMEX special. 

Rich Mackey
Rich Mackey

I'm currently working with a friend who owns a restaurant to beef up his social media. He abandoned Twitter long ago because "he didn't see anything come from it." While he takes small steps in social, we realized he had a fairly loyal Foursquare base and engaged a loyalty promotion. He's seen (and the stats show) people he's never seen before come in 2 or 3 times in the last 3 weeks and check in. And eat dinner or lunch.  He has a3x as many  Facebook fans (and the same deal is running there) but he's not seeing the same result.  I agree 100% that followers are not a good indicator of anything. But when you can play to your engaged audience - wherever that engaged audience is active - and find a way to spread their enthusiasm, it can work in spades.


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