Social networking software

Twitter's Promoted Tweets to Poison User Timelines

If you're hungry for more advertisements, Twitter is the place to go. Not content with just displaying Promoted Tweets in its search function, Twitter is rolling out an initiative to deluge your timeline with them as well. This campaign will annoy users, choke already-spam-muddled user timelines -- and make Twitter a lot of money. But at what cost? Your enjoyment, that's what.

The Initial Rollout

At first, only users of HootSuite will see the advertisements (roughly 1 million of Twitter's 175 million users, according to TechCrunch). The corporate agencies involved thus far are Virgin, Starbucks and Red Bull. Fear not, marketing junkies: Twitter intends on throwing Promoted Tweets in the faces of all its users, including other mobile apps and Twitter.com.

In a carefully worded statement, Matt Graves, Twitter's communications director, attempted to soften the invasion of Promoted Tweets by claiming the ads would only be displayed in the timeline "when they are relevant." So if you like coffee, you'll see Starbucks ads. And if you're a virgin ... oh wait.

How Will It Work?

As I mentioned, only HootSuite users -- but not all -- will see Promoted Tweets infecting their timelines at first. Twitter doesn't detail which HootSuite users will see what, how often, or where -- Graves merely writes, "Not all HootSuite users will see Promoted Tweets and those who do may see different Promoted Tweets in different places in their timeline."

Vague enough for you? It gets cloudier. The selection of these advertisements, according to Twitter's blog, is based on the use of "several signals to determine a Promoted Tweet's relevance to a user, including the public list of whom they follow."

Notice the word including. That means there will be other "signals" determining the product, placement, and user. But we don't know what these signals are, how they will function, and how many users they will affect.

AdAge also points out the hypocrisy of Twitter's actions: "Twitter banned third-party clients from injecting any kind of paid tweets into a user's timeline in May, stating on the company's blog that ‘third-party ad networks are not necessarily looking to preserve the unique user experience Twitter has created.'"

So third-parties can't destroy Twitter's unique user experience ... but Twitter can, and will, right now.

The Expected Reaction

Think Twitter's early adopters and purists will take this marketing blitz in stride? Think again.

"Social media enthusiasts will blast Twitter for selling out their streams," Jason Falls, a leading social media marketing consultant at socialmediaexplorer.com, told ReadWriteWeb. "There will be calls to boycott and the like. At best, you'll have many complaining that Twitter sealed off third-party ad networks disingenuously and is now preserving the unique experience Twitter created to make a buck."

But will Twitter "pull a Google" and surrender to saber-rattling public outcries? Twitter's chief executive, Dick Costolo, told Ad Age in April that testing would continue until perfection: "Is it great in search and horrible in the timeline? We are going to test and test and test."

Still, I don't think a quiet withdrawal is likely, as Twitter has defended its advertisements in the past as "organic" -- a word, when associated with marketing, that makes me feel nauseous.

"There is not a single 'ad' in our Promoted Tweets platform that isn't already an organic part of Twitter," wrote Twitter cofounder Biz Stone in an April 2010 blog post announcing Promoted Tweets. Costolo also dropped the o-bomb to Venturebeat: "What [Twitter is] trying to say [is], 'This is organic content that people like.' How can we take this thing that's organic and enhance a company's ability to communicate with their customers?" Gross.

The question here isn't whether Twitterati will rebel; it's how thunderous they'll be.

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