Sponsored tweets cut out the social media middleman
MEDIA & MARKETING:Why are media companies on Twitter? The flippant reply is “why aren’t they?” But this tweet-love is worth teasing out. What are they doing with Twitter? What’s their plan?
We know why individual journalists originally joined. It was pretty much for the same reason as everyone else: to make contacts, promote links, stick it to Facebook, tweet their way into new jobs, humblebrag before it was called humblebragging, troll feminists, be feminists and get riled by the National Rifle Association.
Before their bosses had awoken to the possibilities of bit.ly, media employees had already befriended, direct-messaged, ignored, unfollowed, mocked, blocked and systematically tortured two-thirds of their Twitter followers.
They were already abandoning such novice Twitter strategies as passive-aggressively retweeting criticism, making any remark whatsoever about breastfeeding and following Graham Linehan. Into the fold came lurking editor-types, social media guidelines and proliferating “official” accounts.
That’s a loose chronology. So now what? New York-based newswire Associated Press gave an intriguing and surprisingly obvious answer to the question this week – it used its Twitter account as an advertising platform.
“SPONSORED TWEET: Stay up to date on what’s trending live from CES 2013 at #SamsungCES,” read the first ad in the @AP feed. This week’s twice-daily sponsored tweets coincide with Samsung’s presence at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, to which AP is also, as per usual, giving editorial coverage.
Some of @AP’s 1.5 million followers were irked, even outraged, and told it so. But there’s not much difference between a television news channel selling ad spots in commercial breaks – or a programme-maker collecting from product placement – and a Twitter account-holder selling sponsored tweets. Its followers can unfollow if they cannot tolerate the interruption to normal service, much like a television viewer can switch over.
AP’s social media business strategy might make some of its journalists feel uncomfortable – it’s a paradox of news ethics that any commercial activity by their employer makes journalists shift uneasily in their swivel-chairs, notwithstanding the fact that without it they wouldn’t be journalists.
The newswire did not disclose the financial details of the arrangement with Samsung, but it did stress that the sponsored tweets, apart from being clearly labelled, would be produced by its corporate staff, not editorial.
The Twitter rules that apply to AP are the same ones that apply to Katie Price and Rio Ferdinand – an ad is fine as long as it’s clear that it’s an ad. This time last year, the model and the footballer were among the celebrities to send sponsored tweets as part of a moderately amusing campaign by Snickers. Price tweeted about economics, Ferdinand about knitting, before the fifth and final tweet in the series featured an image of them with the chocolate bar, the hashtag #spon and the slogan: “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”
Twitter’s terms of service allow for third-party agreements on advertising as long as the tweets are individually and manually sent, not published as part of an automated ad engine. So in theory, if other media groups copied AP, Twitter could wind up a hungry middleman locked out of some very tasty deals.
It has options. It can improve the way it sells advertising via promoted tweets, which it inserts into users’ feeds and places at the top of popular hashtag searches.
Or, if it’s not confident it can retain an advantage this way, it can simply revise its terms of service and demand a cut of account-holders’ ad revenue.
Not every media company will be able to “do an AP”. Discussions about using Twitter feeds to sell advertising may be superseded by any intentions news groups have to charge for online content. A Twitter feed is still a shop window even if some of the goods have a price. But a Twitter feed that comprises both “free” and “premium” content risks irritating its followers even before sponsored tweets are thrown into the mix.
Nevertheless, the AP example suggests that media companies are not required to situate their corporate headquarters in California to innovate on the back of another company, nor are social media behemoths inherently immune to being pushed out of the revenue equation.
In the meantime, Twitter continues to be where it’s at if you want to lament the sartorial choices of politicians or point out seemingly deliberate anachronisms in Downton Abbey. It’s also a brilliant place for consuming media, as it happens. We’re tweeting and learning, all the time.