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Will in-stream advertising kill the Twitter experience?

Twitter’s recent announcement that it is going ahead with in-stream ads is yet another attempt by the microblogging platform to effectively monetise without losing its opt-in/opt-out appeal. This follows the removal of Quickbar, a form of intrusive promoted tweets that appeared in Hootsuite users’ timelines, in March. Users quickly voiced their frustration by using the #dickbar hashtag and Twitter promptly removed this feature, saying via its blog:

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Rather than continue to make changes to the QuickBar as it exists, we removed the bar from the update appearing in the App Store today. We believe there are still significant benefits to increasing awareness of what’s happening outside the home timeline. Evidence of the incredibly high usage metrics for the QuickBar support this. For now, we’re going back to the drawing board to explore the best possible experience for in-app. notification and discovery.

This is in addition to the move made by Twitter in May last year to change its rules to prohibit third parties from injecting “paid tweets into a timeline on any service that leverages the Twitter API.”

Twitter CFO Dick Costolo’s explanation at the time gives us valuable insight into what the company wants to achieve with in-stream ads:

Why are we prohibiting these kinds of ads? First, third party ad networks are not necessarily looking to preserve the unique user experience Twitter has created. They may optimize for either marketshare or short-term revenue at the expense of the long-term health of the Twitter platform. For example, a third party ad network may seek to maximize ad impressions and click through rates even if it leads to a net decrease in Twitter use due to user dissatisfaction.

Secondly, the basis for building a lasting advertising network that benefits users should be innovation, not near-term monetisation. Twitter is uniquely dependent on and responsible for the long-term health and value of the platform. Accordingly, a necessary focus of Promoted Tweets is to explore ways to create value for our users.

The most important takeaway from this is the need to preserve the unique user experience associated with Twitter. Being able to tweet what you want, in your own style and to follow whomever you choose is at the core of Twitter’s success — the invasion by artificially placed messages might infringe on that freedom of choice.

Analysts have also been debating the efficacy of Twitter’s other sales products like Promoted Trends, with most agreeing that having something trend organically creates much more groundswell and engagement than trying to force a trend in an Inception-like manner.

This raises a few questions with regards to how in-stream ads are going to be judged:

Are in-stream tweets push or pull advertising? Traditionally, Push advertising mediums like TV, Radio and print media disseminate messages to a wide audience and, more often than not, ‘reach’ is used as a form of measuring how many people viewed it. Pull advertising like Google Adwords relies on users inputting their needs and clicking on ads that are relevant to them.

‘Engagement’ is measured through click throughs on the ads and conversion on site. So, what would in-stream ads be? The answer seems to be both. The challenge then, is to target these ads in order to achieve a balance between reaching new prospective users and engaging with those that are already au fait with the brand.

Which raises the next question: how are these ads going to be targeted? Documentation on this has been vague so far. Most reports state that if a user follows a brand then they will be prone to seeing in-stream ads from that brand. Where the vagueness comes in is where users follow other users who may be brand ambassadors or who tweet about brands often, from Adage:

Users will see messages which are relevant to their interests and behaviours – some users will rarely see Promoted Tweets, while other users will be presented with appropriate tweets more frequently based on a variety of indicators…(such as) the kinds of people and products they already follow, though not all users will necessarily see ads. For example, someone who follows other coffee companies or who follows people who write about coffee would be a target candidate for a Starbucks-paid Tweet.

This leads us onto the frequency question, how often are users going to see in-stream ads? The answer to that is still uncertain. From the quote above it seems to depend entirely on each user’s nuances with regards to how they use Twitter.

What is most apparent is that Twitter is looking to preserve the unique user experience it has created. As users that experience has been free, in spite of the fact that Twitter has to control aspects like administration, abiding by the law and spam — it deserves to make money. The following months are going to be a balancing act between effectively monetising and staying true to Twitter’s roots.

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