Sponsored Tweets: Content, Conversation and Context

By | 23/10/2019

The web is all abuzz about Twitter advertising and the concept of ’sponsored tweets’. News comes about an official ad program from the company itself, and a bunch of people are discussing the controversial topic of ’sponsored tweets’. There’s a whole flock of companies in the space: Ad.ly, Twittad, Magpie, SponsoredTweets and so forth.

Things get punchy whenever people explore monetizing a new channel. Let’s begin by thinking about some other controversial forms of advertising in social media, and how sponsored tweets might relate:

  • Static ads on blogs – Not particularly relevant. In my experience, the majority of income from blogging comes from one’s archives, not the front page flow.
  • Sponsored posts – The blogosphere dabbled with these for a few years, but I rarely see them anymore. This could be because I don’t read the sort of blogs that would employ sponsored posts, or because they’re utterly forgettable, but I don’t think they’ve caught on in any significant fashion.
  • As in RSS feeds – This is somewhat germane, though I usually see these ads not as separate feed items, but rather as add-ons to existing posts. Sponsored tweets are standalone units of content.
  • Ads in IM conversations – In a way, this seems like the most relevant comparison. That said, I’ve never actually seen an ad in an IM chat. I mostly use Skype or Google Chat, though. Maybe something like Omegle will start inserting one-line text ads into its hosted, serendipitous IM conversations.

There’s also the Facebook Beacon debacle, among others. In short, people’s tolerance for advertising in their social media channels feels pretty low.

Content vs. Conversations

Robert begins a thoughtful post about sponsored tweets with this sentence:

I believe that people who produce content should be able to make a living for producing that content.

I do, too. But I’m not sure that’s the right assumption to make about most Twitter users. Does the average Twitter user think of themselves as “producing essay content”? I doubt it. The medium has become incredibly conversational. Excluding the one-to-many power users who have thousands and thousands of followers, Twitter feels more like a townhall meeting or a chat down at the pub.

In that context, sponsored tweets sound pretty weird. Consider this example of an ad-enabled SMS conversation:

Feels a touch anti-social, doesn’t it?

Or imagine that, after telling an amusing anecdote to a half-dozen people at a cocktail party, you tell them that funny story was brought to them by the good people at Yuk Yuk’s, Canada’s finest comedy club.

These examples are both kind of farcical, but they highlight the importance of context in these channels. Context gets more and more important the smaller the unit of content. It might be totally acceptable to see ads (if not sponsored posts) around a fictional blog that’s telling sci-fi stories. On the other hand, I can’t really imagine that people would put up with a sponsored tweet in the stream of, say, @ShitMyDadSays.

I mostly use Twitter as a broadcast and chat channel, so I don’t intend to include sponsored tweets on my account any time soon. For the same reasons, I doubt I’ll care much about other people’s use of advertising. I simply don’t think it will catch on and become viable for more than a tiny fraction of power users who are delivering high value to their followers.

More importantly, why would you expend that hard-earned social capital in exchange for ad revenue? I can imagine a hundred other ways you might gain more–socially, financially, karmically–through other kinds of ‘asks’ than “click this ad from a company I may or may not care about”.