Does advertising on social networks have to be at the cost of user experience?

On 12th April 2010 Twitter announced its new business strategy to include promoted tweets in its organic search results. This new direction in collecting revenue from advertisers raised many questions among the online marketing community and avid Twitterers. Is Twitter not going to affect the user experience in the network by “polluting” the content with promotional tweets? At the same time, marketers have been eagerly anticipating Twitter’s rollout of a strategy for monetizing its value.  The new initiative by the company to mix user generated content with advertisements was therefore hailed by them as the most logical step by a company that wants to maintain sustainable profits in the volatile online technology market.

Figure 1: How a promoted tweet looks like

Connoisseurs following closely how Twitter’s marketing strategy is developing, may be likely to conclude that promoted tweets is not such a breakthrough given the similarity of the strategy with Google Adwords. The only difference with Twitter is that its search engine is (still) not as accurate as the one of Google, with the main issue that Twitter Search displays search results in chronological order, which makes organic search results in Twitter (as they were before the promoted tweet) quite irrelevant at times. Thank God the live Twitter feed is included in the Google search results since last year! However, the promoted tweets will now appear on top of the Twitter search list no matter what time they are posted, which could render keyword searches on Twitter more targeted and relevant to the user.

This seems like a win-win-win situation for Twitter, the user and advertisers. Twitter will substantially improve the quality of its search engine, the user will find more relevant content easier (the Advanced Twitter search is good, but is still not as half as elaborated as Google’s algorithms), and advertisers get the opportunity to engage in valuable conversations with their target audiences, so called “Permission marketing”. (Seth Godin has been promoting this since the beginning of this decade!!). Twitter will protect its users from spamming and will compel advertisers to engage in real value creation by letting users decide which promoted tweets get to remain in the timeline. When a promoted tweet is published, Twitter will look at the amount of “retweets” and “favorites”, which will raise the popularity of a Tweet or doom it to oblivion. Tweets that fail to become popular will be simply removed from the timeline.

While this seems like a great strategy to retain the unique value of Twitter as a social network for content sharing and brand-to-consumer two-way conversations, it is still no guarantee how promoted tweets in the timeline of users will increase their experience in Twitter. To draw a comparison, let’s look at the Farmville Facebook addicts and the displayed Farmville updates in the News feed. Many people simply unfriended other people just not to be spammed with Farmville updates, simply because they didn’t know how to change their settings on the Facebook news feed. Surely, these settings were only enabled by Facebook a few months ago and since then you can adjust the Facebook timeline to your taste, skipping irrelevant status updates from Farmville aficionados (among others).

The question that Twitter has to answer now is: What will happen when promoted tweets are included in the timelines of users that don’t follow the company which sends these tweets? Wouldn’t that wind up the avid Twitter user? And does Twitter offer the option for one to customize the timeline so that promoted tweets are only displayed when the user is interested in them? An example: in Google, promoted search results are mixed with organic search results, which doesn’t directly enhance the user experience, but motivates companies to compete for relevance and improve their website content, which ultimately improves user experience online. As Twitter now offers a similar service to advertisers at the danger of deteriorating user experience, it needs to make sure that:

a) Either the users have the option to customize their timelines (exclude promoted tweets altogether, or allow only promoted tweets from companies they follow)

b) Or companies that are tweeting regularly but not buying keywords for promoted tweets can compete on an equal level playing field with big advertisers (just like in Google, where bigger brands “own” the most expensive and sought keywords and smaller advertisers can only slowly rise to the top of the search page by optimizing their website content for crawlers)

If Twitter is to follow the threaded path of Google’s success, it needs to make sure it has the right equipment for climbing the top. What seems like a shortcut to becoming profitable may turn into a slippery slope towards a collapse. Only time will show how Twitter’s management will tackle this new challenge…

Update: A brief video showing how the tweets are sent by the company and what the user in Twitter actually sees:

Scroll down for the post Hello World for explanation

(This is a guest article, by Silvia Todorova)