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Summary:

Twitter has launched the next phase of its advertising strategy, in which companies can buy “promoted trending topics,” the first of which appeared last night. But the campaign blurs the line between Twitter’s role as a media filter and its intention to become an ad company.

Twitter has just launched the next phase of its advertising strategy: In addition to “promoted tweets,” in which a brand can pay to have its tweet show up higher in the Twitter stream, the company now offers “promoted trending topics.” The first of these appeared last night, with a “Toy Story 3″ topic at the bottom of the trends list that includes the word “promoted” in yellow. Clicking the topic leads to a promoted tweet paid for by Disney. But unlike promoted tweets, the selling of trending topics blurs the line between Twitter’s role as a media filter and its growing intention to become an advertising company.

It’s not just that the word “promoted” may not make it entirely clear to users that it’s an advertisement (though hovering their cursor over the word shows a small bubble saying, in this case, “promoted by Disney/Pixar”). It’s that promoted trends aren’t just ads that sit at the bottom of the topic list — according to Twitter, they will actually rise up the list of topics just as other, real trends do, or possibly fall off and disappear from the list, based on the company’s view of how much they “resonate” with users.

And how will that decision be made? That’s not clear. Twitter says it’s developing “resonance” algorithms that determine when a trend moves up, but it’s not clear how they will apply to promoted trends. Will it be based simply on the number of people who actually retweet the trending message, or will the fact that it’s been paid for accelerate its rise? Will the company do anything to try and guard against Twitter users — employees of the advertiser, for example — gaming the trend or the “resonance” ranking by retweeting the company’s message excessively? All the FAQ says is that tweets found to “violate Twitter’s spam and abuse policy will be deleted.”

The problem is that trends are supposed to show what users are actually talking about, just as Google’s search results are supposed to show the most relevant links for a topic. The search company has sponsored results too, but they show up at the top of the page and are clearly ads — they don’t move up and down in the search results the way Twitter’s promoted trends apparently will. Twitter is now trying to do two mutually exclusive things: be a smart communications network with filters that help users discern what is important, and sell ads that are mixed in with those filters. It’s going to be a tough line to walk.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Social Advertising Models Go Back to the Future

  1. A thoughtful and timely post, though I have to quibble a bit with the basic premise, that

    “It’s not just that the word “promoted” may not make it entirely clear to users that it’s an advertisement (though hovering their cursor over the word shows a small bubble saying, in this case, “promoted by Disney/Pixar”).”

    I think the word ‘promoted’ on a yellow highlighted field makes it abundantly clear that the trending topic is an advertisement. In fact, I don’t know how much more clear it could be, unless each time you clicked on it, someone from Twitter called you personally to ensure you knew what you were doing.

    The issue, then isn’t awareness to me, it’s appropriateness. As you very properly point out, “The problem is that trends are supposed to show what users are actually talking about, just as Google’s search results are supposed to show the most relevant links for a topic.”

    So that’s the crux of the issue to me. These aren’t trending topics- they are a different animal and should be in a separate category, not blended in with real trending topics regardless of how obvious the labeling may be.

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    1. Thanks, Kevin — I think we are in agreement. By mentioning the word “promoted” I was trying to get at the fact that some newer users might not understand at first what that refers, since promoting something is not always an action that implies advertisement (in other contexts, things can be promoted because they are worthy or exceptional, not necessarily just because someone paid for them).

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  2. [...] expect some controversy over this: as GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram points out, a trend that only gets onto the list because someone paid Twitter is not really a [...]

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  3. [...] When Is a Twitter Trend Not a Trend? When It’s Promoted [...]

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  4. [...] Ingram / GigaOM: When Is a Twitter Trend Not a Trend? When It’s Promoted — Twitter has just launched the next phase of its advertising strategy: In [...]

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  5. I have to disagree with Kevin. If I saw the word “promoted” I would not immediately think it was an advertisement. How could they make it more clear? Oh I don’t know…maybe by saying “This is an advertisement”???

    Plus if all the “promoted” ones were in a separate category as you suggest, no one would look at them, thus defeating the purpose.

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  6. Folks, this is pure nonsense. Twitter is clearly hedging their bets here. Many (me included) do not believe that Promoted Tweets is a real product. There clearly has to be people inside of Twitter that agree otherwise they would not be distracted like this.

    This is a cheap, easy way to generate revenue and, YES, user confusion is part of the equation.

    But let’s also get something straight: if Twitter knew that Promoted Tweets was going to be a winner they would not be doing this right now.

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  7. [...] that’s not enough distinction between advertising and content for some. As Gigaom [...]

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  8. Excellent observations, Mathew. I’m referencing it as a source of information in my today’s blog post.

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  9. [...] It will feature promoted tweets in search results and eventually other places. It will feature promoted trends in its trending topics. It will publicize sales and other deals. It will offer pro accounts (at [...]

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  10. [...] Tweets and Promoted Trends features — but even there, it has to walk a fine line between appealing to advertisers and serving the users who see it as a communications medium, and might not take kindly to seeing their real-time news [...]

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  11. [...] elevating promoted tweets when people search a topic, and it has a related feature that allows promoted tweets to appear among the latest trending topics. The company has also launched promoted accounts so users see recommendations of sponsors among [...]

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  12. [...] it can then be re-tweeted or shared just like any other Twitter message. Companies can also pay to have what Twitter calls a Promoted Trend, which features their name or the product’s name in the spot that shows trending topics on [...]

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