Twitter CEO Dick Costolo made a point to say in January that the social platform is "not necessarily a media company." That’s still being debated, especially given recent moves, but Twitter seems to be at least taking a page from media companies’ business models in the way ads are bought and sold.
Three weeks ago Twitter began testing the ability for advertisers to run Promoted Tweets without first posting the tweet organically to a brand’s followers, according to sources with knowledge of the beta test. Brands would still have to create an organic tweet, but the tweet wouldn't have to be published to the brand's followers and instead only be served as a Promoted Tweet, sources said. In other words, these brands’ tweets first appearance would be as an ad (specifically a Promoted Tweet), rather than starting as a standard tweet then eventually morphing into a Promoted Tweet placement.
The move is similar to one enacted by Facebook that would let brands create Page posts that wouldn’t be run on a brand’s Timeline but could be promoted as an ad, as reported by Inside Facebook on Monday. When reached for comment, Twitter spokesperson Matt Graves said the company had nothing to share.
If Twitter officially rolls out the capability industrywide, it would be a noteworthy shift from the company’s approach to advertising. Right now, brands must first post a tweet to their followers and then can pay to turn it into a Promoted Tweet in order to reach specific groups of users who don't follow the brand and therefore have not seen the tweet.
Removing the organic posting requirement means that Promoted Tweets will be purchased in a manner that is closer to traditional display ads, a departure from how Twitter has positioned its ad units. On a company page marketing Promoted Tweets, Twitter describes Promoted Tweets as “distinct from both traditional search advertising and more recent social advertising” because the ad units initially run as regular tweets. That would still be the case content-wise—like regular tweets, Promoted Tweets can be retweeted, favorited or replied to—but the shift is in the process behind how those paid tweets would be served.
But that’s not to say the change would be an unwanted departure, at least for advertisers. The straight-to-paid Promoted Tweets would let brands more specifically target content they post to Twitter without annoying their existing followers. Promoted Tweets can already function as a customer acquisition tool, but Ian Schafer, CEO of not-just-social interactive agency Deep Focus, said brands have been asking how they can recruit new consumers through Twitter. “Brands want to post something that very clearly is not meant for followers,” he said. The straight-to-paid shift could serve that purpose.
For example, a global restaurant chain might not want to tweet to all followers of its global Twitter account about the new menu item it’s added in Brazil, so the brand could instead only run a Promoted Tweet targeted to Twitter users in Brazil. Or an iPhone-only mobile gaming company might want to alert Android users on Twitter that it’s launched a game for Google’s mobile operating system but necessarily message that to their conceivably iPhone-heavy followers.
The straight-to-paid shift could give the agencies and social ad firms brands work with a bigger hand in their clients’ Twitter presences. Typically internal or external social media managers most directly manage a brand’s Twitter efforts, and that gig is usually focused on posting tweets and replying to a brand’s followers. But by not having to publish a tweet to the brand’s time line in order to run a Promoted Tweet, that social media manager wouldn’t have to be involved, making Promoted Tweets more the domain of a brand’s agency or social ad firm because “you’re basically running ad copy,” Schafer said.
But the change to how Promoted Tweets are served could turn off users if advertisers start abusing the tweets' content. In addition to solidifying the paid-earned-owned media triumvirate, limiting Promoted Tweets to originally organic posts leashes brands to making sure the ads are more social than promotional, more akin to content than advertising (although technically the Promoted Tweets in beta still start off as organic tweets, albeit unpublished ones). Advertisers would walk a fine line if they can take that approach and make the tweets' content sound like ad copy. Twitter stops running a Promoted Tweets if the company's algorithm detects it's not resonating with users (Twitter also rate-limits how many Promoted Tweets can be showed to a user in a given day or by a given advertiser). On the flip side, it could improve brands’ organic Twitter feeds because brands would be able to test tweets with a defined audience and then decide whether to post the tweet more broadly to its followers based on the Promoted Tweet’s performance. That ability to test creative is something that Facebook has begun to roll out with the unpublished Page posts.