Twitter With a Twist

For much of the past year, a favorite Silicon Valley parlor game has been hypothesizing on Twitter’s ad model. None have emerged, but that hasn’t stopped brands from reaping the rewards of Twitter’s growing popularity in other, surprising ways.

Brands are going beyond early Twitter efforts focused on customer service, buzz monitoring and contests, to embrace Twitter in its emerging role as a key part of the Internet infrastructure. They use it as a default content-syndication channel, pop-culture icon and real-time content source. What’s more, Twitter’s decision to open its application programming interface (API) has allowed brands to weave Twitter into campaigns, rather than have stand-alone Twitter strategies.

One of the most essential functions Twitter serves is as a real-time source of consumer-to-consumer recommendations. Twitter acknowledged this last November when it changed its prompt from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?” For brands, this means Twitter has become a key content-sharing option. Some banner ads, for example, now have a “retweet” button.

Twitter serves a content-sharing role for an initiative Sapient Interactive kicked off for Coca-Cola tied to the World Cup. On its site, Sapient built widgets of information designed for sharing and Twitter lets consumers pass it around. “The real-time aspect is the most interesting,” said Freddie Laker, director of digital strategy at Sapient.

Twitter has been discussed so much that the Global Language Monitor named it 2009 word of the year. New England Confectionery Co. 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 apps for users to Tweet Sweethearts’ messages to friends. “Marketers had been gravitating towards Facebook, but people are realizing it’s a very cluttered space,” said Chris Pape, cd at Genuine Interactive.

Other marketers using Twitter in a unique way include Tasti D-Lite, which has made it the backbone of a customer loyalty program. It lets users earn extra reward points for broadcasting their purchasing activity on Twitter and mobile social network Foursquare. “People were already talking about Tasti D-Lite on these networks,” said B.J. Emerson, director of information and social technologies at Tasti D-Lite.

Twitter skeptics point to a stagnant, if not declining, traffic rate. According to Nielsen, Twitter.com received 18.1 million visitors last month, a 579 percent increase from a year earlier, but a 5 percent decrease from November. That doesn’t, however, take into account the many tweeters using 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 give a Twitter-based initiative far larger reach. Frog Design in San Francisco has created tvChatter, an iPhone app that aggregates discussions around TV shows. (NBC recently linked up with Frog to sponsor tvChatter.) The app is meant to appeal beyond Twitter’s user base by allowing people to see a filtered stream of TV buzz in real time. While users can tweet directly from the app to join the conversation, it’s not required, said Mike Goos, director of product management at Frog. “There’s never the problem of a 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, with no cost to set up an account and a free API to build brand applications. The downside, according to Shiv Singh, social media lead at Razorfish, is this can lead to a confused strategy, or the lack of one. Many companies, he noted, 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.”