For much of the past year, hypothesizing about Twitter’s ad model has been a favorite Silicon Valley parlor game. So far, none has emerged, but that hasn’t stopped brands from reaping the rewards of Twitter’s growing popularity in surprising ways.
Brands are going beyond early Twitter efforts focused on customer service, PR, buzz monitoring and Tweet-for-a-prize contests to embrace Twitter in its emerging role as a key part of the Internet infrastructure. Advertisers are using it as a default content-syndication channel, pop culture icon and real-time content source. What’s more, Twitter’s open application programming interface (API) has let brands weave Twitter into campaigns, rather than have a standalone Twitter strategy.
“Brands are having to evolve into social brands,” said Shiv Singh, social media lead at Publicis Groupe’s Razorfish, noting that Twitter plays a role in many of the agency’s online marketing efforts.
One of the most essential functions Twitter serves is as a way for brands to share content. Twitter evolved from its origins as a means to broadcasting personal activity (“eating lunch”) to a real-time source of consumer-to-consumer recommendations. The service itself acknowledged as much last November when it changed its prompt from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?”
For brands, that means Twitter has become a key content-sharing option. Some banner ads, including one launched last fall for the Universal Pictures film The Vampire’s Assistant, now have a “retweet” button.
Sapient Interactive is also relying on Twitter as the backbone of a campaign for client Coca-Cola tied to the World Cup. Rather than create a static destination site, the marketing services firm built widgets of information designed for sharing. As such, Twitter will play a key role in letting consumers pass around information, according to Freddie Laker, director of digital strategy at Sapient. “The real-time aspect is the most interesting,” he said.
Twitter is, without a doubt, the latest shiny new object of the Web. It was discussed so much in 2009 that the Global Language Monitor named it the word of the year. Naturally, as advertisers seek to tap into pop culture, Twitter has become a shortcut to getting consumer attention. New England Confectionary is capitalizing on the zeitgeist with a Valentine’s Day campaign that will use “Tweet me” on its Sweethearts candies. It also has iPhone and Web applications for users to tweet Sweethearts messages to friends on Twitter. “Marketers had been gravitating toward Facebook, but people are realizing it’s a very cluttered space,” said Chris Pape, creative director at Genuine Interactive. “That’s why we wanted to integrate with Twitter—because it’s more unique.”
Other marketers are finding that Twitter can be useful in unexpected ways. Tasti D-Lite, for example, is using it as the foundation of a customer loyalty program. The program lets users tie its new TastiRewards card into Twitter and mobile social network Foursquare. Consumers can earn extra reward points for broadcasting their purchasing activity. “People were already talking about Tasti D-Lite on these networks,” said BJ Emerson, director of information and social technologies at the brand.
Twitter skeptics point to its relatively small footprint (it had 18.1 million unique visitors last month, per the Neilsen Co.) and tapering growth rate, measured by site traffic, which doesn’t take into account the many tweeters who use third-party tools to update and read tweets. Popularity debates can obscure the service’s power as a real-time pulse of information and feedback. Twitter already has deals with Microsoft and Google to feed its data into search results. Marketers have waded into the fire hose of information by taking on a curator role. Microsoft, for instance, has sponsored ExecTweets, built by Federated Media. It pulls together tweets from executives in six industry verticals, from IT to healthcare.
These types of aggregation plays are a handy way to give a Twitter-based initiative far larger reach to the nongeeky. Frog Design in San Francisco has created tvChatter, an iPhone application that aggregates discussions around TV shows. The app is meant to appeal beyond Twitter’s user base by allowing people to see a filtered stream of buzz about TV shows in real time. While users can tweet directly from the app to join the conversation, it’s not required in order to get benefit, said Mike Goos, director of product management at Frog. NBC recently linked up with Frog to sponsor tvChatter. “There’s never the problem of cold start,” he said. “There’s always some kind of relevant conversation going on.”
The many different uses of Twitter are testament to the platform’s inherent flexibility. The downside, according to Singh, is this can lead to a confused strategy, or lack of one entirely. Many companies find themselves with several different Twitter initiatives that lack coherence. “You have to get your plumbing in order,” he said. “You can’t let these things mushroom.”