Sponsored tweets have arrived in earnest and are creating quite a controversy. People are very passionate about this topic and view it as either a great thing or something that will send Twitter to the grave. Ultimately the effect will probably not be so extreme but sponsored tweets will likely have repercussions of varied strength across the entire Twitter ecosystem. Stakeholders include: advertisers, spokespeople, users, and the platform itself – the question is how will this play out and how will these stakeholders be affected.
The latest sponsored tweet program is brought to you by IZEA and has some high profile advocates and spokespeople already signed on. Basically, the sponsored tweet program works by aligning advertisers with “spokespeople” who would send out “approved” tweets in their behalf. Anybody can sign up to be a spokesperson, but the compensation for sending this tweet varies by the amount of influence the spokesperson has. Factors like Twitter Grade, # of followers, follow/follower ratio are considered to arrive at a value for a tweet by a specific spokesperson. If you would like a more in depth description, Jennifer Van Grove in this article for Mashable did a nice job of explaining the new IZEA program.
I know there are many people in the twitterverse who are excited about the opportunity to earn money by sending sponsored tweets, and these are people whom I greatly respect. And why shouldn’t they be excited? They have worked hard to cultivate a following and to provide value to them, and believe they should be able to get paid for their work. Many say that they would only accept sponsorship opportunities from companies and products that they would evangelize regardless of the pay. They say that it is important to maintain their integrity and credibility with their followers. This makes me wonder how many products or companies exist that I feel so strongly about that I would organically evangelize – I can think of 3, 4, possibly a dozen if I really thought about it. So how likely is it that I would be able to match these natural affinities to a paid sponsorship opportunity? Probably not that frequently.
This type of sponsorship done with integrity is perfectly legitimate and ethical but its ultimate effect is a far cry from unpaid evangelism that charismatic brands organically generate. The very fact that someone gets paid to take an action, alters the actions that they will take. The very fact that they are earning money by promoting a brand affects their opinion of the brand. It is how the subconscious mind works and part of human nature (we have good feelings for things that benefit us). Integrity in respect to sponsored tweets may be more difficult to maintain than many realize.
So how does this affect the advertiser? Transparency is a feature of this new sponsored tweet program; disclosure is mandatory. How will viewers respond to a sponsored tweet? Will they value it as much as a non-sponsored tweet that evangelizes that same product, service or company? Will it inspire the same gut feelings in the mind of the customer, and have the ability to align groups that would naturally evangelize, or will everyone want a part of the pie and those who don’t get a piece because there isn’t enough go around become resentful? Will sponsored tweets generate backlash and negative sentiment if seen as an attempt to purchase favor?
In order to understand the true value to the advertiser one must consider what a follower really is and how they follow. Following is really a misnomer. We don’t follow people on twitter any more than we follow a TV or Radio station. We tune in from time to time and hear what’s on the air, but for the most of us we miss most of what has been broadcast. Yes, it is possible to go back and look at recent tweets from any unlocked twitter account but how often do we do this? TV and Radio advertising work because they have large passive audiences to which the advertisement containing a carefully crafted marketing message is repeated over and over again. Twitter is an interactive experience the audience is actively scanning for information and all tweets are fighting to be noticed. There is no benefit of visual or audio technical events to catch the viewer’s attention. How comfortable would a spokesperson be with posting a sponsored tweet over and over again?
This begs the question of how this affects personal brand. How will yours be affected if you choose to broadcast sponsored marketing messages to your followers? There is no one answer for this. It is unique to the person and the gut feeling that their audience has about them and the method and frequency that that person chooses to broadcast the messages. For some I suspect it would damage their brand, for others it would have little effect and for a few it may positively affect their image.
Sponsored blogs have been around for some time and after an initial negative reaction have been largely accepted as an honorable way to earn money for ones efforts. People use this as a justification for the efficacy of sponsored tweets but I feel the analogy fails. A sponsored blog usually contains a banner and link but rarely does a blogger incorporate a sponsors marketing message into the body of their blog. Blogs are fundamentally different than tweets – Tweets are broadcast in real time and appear in your stream. Blogs are visited either at your leisure or through RSS feed that you read at your leisure.
All this leads me to believe that sponsored tweets that include a specific value proposition and call to action (direct marketing) like “25% off for the first 100…” would the most effective, acceptable and offer the greatest value to followers. Additionally, advertisers love analytics that can quantify the true ROI of the campaign and direct marketing type efforts are easiest to measure. I guess it would be possible to cultivate sponsored conversations on twitter but this could backfire if the spokesperson is not knowledgeable about the product and aligned with the values of the brand.
I could be completely wrong, and if I am please tell me so, but it seems to me an advertiser’s would benefit much more by focusing their, energy, creativity, and dollars at cultivating organic word of mouth that will yield a long term boost in brand sentiment than the short term effects they could achieve through a paid word of mouth promotion. It certainly will be interesting to see how this plays out over time.
And finally, the other big question is how all this will affect twitter as a communications platform. What will users think and how will they react if brand messages coming from their friends start to account for a greater percentage of overall message volume?
I realize that this post raises more questions than it answers and I hope you take the time to comment and discuss these questions and more. Thanks for reading.