Guest post by Patricia McDonald, Planning Partner, CHI

This is a rare event for us, a guest post from an ex-BBHer, Pats McDonald. Pats has written a fair amount on related topics in the past here and we’re delighted she agreed to do this follow-up.

Hotly anticipated at South by SouthWest but held back for the first ever Twitter developer’s conference in April, Twitter unveiled its long-anticipated advertising platform last month. While the announcement has been slightly overtaken in the hype stakes by the launch of the Facebook Open Graph, the iPhone OS4 and the Apple versus Adobe showdown (quite a month we’re having), there is nevertheless some serious food for thought in the nuances of the Promoted Tweets platform.

I’ve written before about some of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanies the very idea of sponsored tweets and more recently about the very real danger that by polluting the stream, over-advertising in social media may strip the medium of much of its value. So it was intriguing both to see Twitter’s home grown platform and to see reactions to that platform in the Twittersphere. Teeth gnashing was-perhaps surprisingly-at a minimum, although there was some inevitable concern about the proposed long term shift from advertising around keyword searches to advertising in the stream.

A promoted tweet from Starbucks - one of 6 initial advertisers
A promoted tweet from Starbucks - one of 6 initial advertisers

The Alimeter group have written a characteristically incisive analysis of exactly what the platform entails and how it will work, but three aspects of the announcement struck me as having much broader implications for us all:

  • The introduction of “resonance” as a metric: a measure of the value of a promoted tweet to the community, based on a combination of 9 measures including clicks, re-tweets and replies
  • The idea that the community will decide which advertising endures-as Twitter’s Dick Costolo says “If a post does not reach a certain resonance score, Twitter will no longer show it”
  • The idea that Twitter will continue with advertising only if it adds value

I was also struck by an interview with Porter Gale, VP Marketing for Virgin America explaining its planned used of Promoted Tweets:

“The company is purposely burying their Promoted Tweets in nearly impossible to find search listings…. Gale describes the follower relationship as something sacred and one the company has no intention to disrupt. She says, “people have to really want the promotion to find the tweet.””

This represents an extraordinarily restrained approach to a medium where there has been a tendency for brands simply to pile in and make their presence felt, prioritizing awareness over engagement or added value.

Clay Shirky contends that “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity.” Undoubtedly, some models need to be broken and abundance has been an immensely powerful force in the evolution of the web. But the power of marketing to add value (particularly in the on-line space) is something that is arguably already broken and that scarcity could just help us rebuild.

The most powerful and provocative ideas emerging from the Twitter platform for me then are these:

1. Marketing can and must add value to a user experience

The very idea that marketing can add value is nigh-on heretical in a digital landscape where the prevailing attitude is that marketing is irrelevant at best and pollution at best. But it wasn’t ever thus…a significant proportion of the UK population used to agree that the advertising was almost as good as the programmes. The idea that advertising enhanced our viewing experience-in the way that a cartoon or newsreel enhanced early cinema experiences-wasn’t a ludicrous one. Much has changed in the media landscape but the goal of enhancing-rather than leaching value from-an experience is surely one we must believe in and commit to more than ever.

Not every activity will add value in the same way. The value may be rational, it may be emotional. A beautiful press ad can enhance my reading experience-no glossy magazine would be the same without them. A witty and provocative poster can enhance my journey to work. A useful piece of software can make my life easier or the things I love more accessible.  But we need to believe once again that our activities can enhance an experience and we need to set that as our benchmark.

We need to ask ourselves on every brief, on every project:

How will this activity add value to our consumers’ lives?


2. Scarcity may help us add that value

This is an odd idea in an age of abundance. Many of us have talked a lot in recent years about the need for brands to do more-to try more things, be seen in more places and start more fires. In an age of fragmenting media channels and attention spans there’s no question that there’s still wisdom in this. There’s also no question that abundance represents interesting opportunities for brands, as the ever-awesome Faris Yakob points out. But perhaps over-abundance is killing us. Perhaps in an age of over-abundance a radical strategy is to do less. Not try less, or experiment less, but try lots, learn lots and refine to do less. If we’re not delivering something genuinely valuable, something that is not simply the token banner campaign or hashtag but a genuinely exciting use of a medium, then to quote the design legend Dieter Rams, ‘less but better’ is perhaps a (counter intuitive) thought to conjure with.

3. Every media owner needs to start thinking about how they protect the stream

In practice, much of what Twitter has baked in to the Promoted Tweets platform mirrors existing consumer behaviours. We already know our consumers have the means and the desire to avoid those commercial messages that fail to engage.  Few media owners however have taken the same steps to protect the medium itself from the impact of excessive or unengaging advertising.  Given the recent announcement that Facebook may start allowing status updates to push McDonald’s product messages the need to protect the stream or lose the audience is something every channel owner must consider.

John Batelle sums up the Promoted Tweets platform as follows:

“If Twitter gets this right, only “good” ads will make it into our Twitter streams. That will force marketers to mind what they say when given the privilege of being inserted into our feeds. To think hard about adding value to the conversation that surrounds their brands.

And honestly, isn’t that the kind of behavior we’d hope for?”

If that’s not a rallying cry for an industry, I don’t know what is…