New Tricks: The 5 rules of advertising on Twitter

November 5th, 2008

So, you’re rolling along with Twitter.

dollar logo

Your organization has several hundred (or maybe even more than 1,000) followers. People love what you’re doing with Twitter and seem to look forward to what your paper has to say.

Your boss comes up to you and asks THE question: “Are we ever going to make any money off of this?”

The answer is, of course: “Yes and no. Maybe. Someday. We’re just planting our flag right now. We’re … I don’t know.”

At some point, you’ll have to be able to answer that question forcefully. Although the vast majority of people on Twitter aren’t out to make a buck, you likely will have to at some point. Not only will you be alone in your quest to try to make money, everyone could easily get annoyed by your efforts.

So, it has to be done right. Just as you should not just open the RSS spigot on Twitter without putting thought into it, you also should not put ads on Twitter without careful consideration.

During the Austin City Limits Music Festival,, which was live-tweeting the event, sold an ad to a local ticket vendor. It was done more as a test than anything else.

Here's an actual Tweet sent out as an advertisement by @austin360

Here's an actual Tweet sent out as an advertisement by @austin360

Austin360 received only one complaint – someone who basically said, “For shame!” The Twitter account didn’t noticeably lose any followers.

I think there are some reasons it didn’t get hammered.

Here are my 5 rules for advertising on Twitter:

1. Sell it ONLY to someone who will provide relevant information to your followers. The ACL Fest after-party tickets are a good example. If they put a car dealer ad out there, they might have lost all of their followers.

2. Don’t insert the ad too much. I asked the followers of the @statesman account what they would think of advertising. Of those who said they wouldn’t mind ads, they almost all said, “Once or twice a day only.” I think you might be able to get away with an ad every 15-20 Tweets. The ACL advertisement was inserted (manually) 5 times a day over the three-day event. The account sent out 407 total Tweets, so that’s one advertisement every 27 Tweets.

3. Look for advertisers that would not only be relevant, but also fun and useful. Advertising on Twitter sounds horrible to most heavy users, but if you send out an ad that says, “Show this tweet at Jo’s Coffee shop for 1/2 price coffee today” then I don’t think they’ll complain quite as loudly.

4. Do not use a random third-party service. I’ve noticed a few of these pop up, most noticeably Magpie. This just looks like a recipe for disaster. Set this up, and watch your followers drop like a rock. If you rely on someone else to do this for you, they aren’t going to follow my other rules. Expect too-frequent ad Tweets, irrelevant information and more.

5. When in doubt, be conservative. Let’s say you’re going to live Tweet a political convention and you want to sell your stream to an advertiser. Negotiate with them to give you control over the wording. Tell them you can’t send it out 10 times an hour. Stand your ground. Don’t advertise if they won’t go with you. Give up the money before you give up your community.

This is a tricky subject, and I know there are many who say they’ll NEVER follow an account that advertises. In the @statesman survey, I learned that most of your community will stay with you – if you don’t abuse them.

What do you think?

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Entry Filed under: Advertising,New Tricks,Twitter

  • Len Kendall

    For experimentation purposes I tried out the advertiser side of Magpie. It is not an effective means of expanding your base, rather the users clicking on the “paid tweets” are just new and curious to what Magpie is. Most likely paid tweets have the same fate as pop-up ads.

  • http:.// Michael Leis

    Interesting post — just to add an idea — if you look at Twitter like radio, then maybe the most effective is to use the “live billboard” model, where you would tweet something like, “The next hour of live conference tweeting is brought to you by Kobaloski Tires,” or “If you’re looking for a wedding ring, the good folks at Diamonds R Us have asked that you check their site first.”

  • Stuart Foster

    Magpie is going to bomb…even though from a business perspective it has a good model. Twitter is simply to informal and to decentralized to create an effective stream of revenue. You can’t just spontaneously add advertising to a previously clear channel…people just don’t like it.

  • Brad Maier

    Just tell your boss that Twitter is not direct response marketing but that the effort is worth it for the new customers and new site visitors who were more engaged or found out about you via twitter (both of which can be directly measured).

    Twitter ads are borderline spam and just detract from the conversation with your customer (which is a terrible word to use when marketing on the web).

  • Robert Quigley

    Thanks for the comments!

    Len – I think Magpie is not a good way to go. They came up with a delivery content and a pay system, but the way it’s presented is too pushy, in my opinion, to work.

    Michael – It’s interesting that you say that. For media accounts, I do like the radio broadcast model. If you can work the advertisements in in a non-obtrusive way, you do have a better chance.

    Stuart – You might be right, but I guarantee you a lot will try to find a way to turn it into a stream of revenue. A major media company that is providing a lot of useful, worthy content will likely find a way to get paid for that content in some fashion. At least that’s what they’ll seek.

    Brad – You’re right – bosses should be told the main benefits of Twitter – community growth and brand building. At the same time, Twitter ads are inevitable; advertisements are everywhere in life. They’re going to be here, too. If advertisements do end up in Twitter streams, the good thing is you, as a consumer, can choose to ignore those streams – or decide the content the organization provides is good enough that the ads don’t bother you. These five rules are aimed to keep those ads from being too bothersome.

  • daniel

    Rob – I kind of wonder if Twitter were to have more failures were it to add a simple ad delivery mechanism on top of everything else it does.

    I’m not a developer, so does anyone have any sort of idea?

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  • Jason Falls

    The problem is no matter what rules you set, some ad agency or brand will come along and break them. No matter how hard those of us who advise these companies object, the client still makes the call and thus you have 5, 10, 15K advertising messages a day bombarding the average American consumer.

    For all of you who do it right, there are 10 others who will screw it up.

    Separately, advertising doesn’t belong on Twitter because the inherent purpose of Twitter is conversation. Advertising can happen in conversations, but it has to be natural, else it’s not conversation. Conversational marketing is an art form. Few know how to do it well. Which means few better be doing it on Twitter or the place will get gummed up really quickly.

    Two cents.

  • Kyle Studstill

    I’m in line with the sentiment Brad was getting across – I don’t think we can try and peg Twitter into one of the marketing channels we’ve been trying to fit it into, direct response, radio, or otherwise.

    I’ve been hearing quite frequently: “why are brands always trying find ways to push something on us?” The idea that we’re moving very rapidly away from a “push” model of marketing is nothing new. Consumers aren’t listening to marketing messages, they’re listening to each other. So I’ve been asked, “why aren’t brands relating to us in that way? Less like marketers and more like people we can trust for recommendations?”

    Now this medium Twitter emerges, where every interaction is on a completely casual level – exactly the environment in which to spur those kinds of interactions.

    I agree that people will try to monetize Twitter according to traditional push models. But you’re right – they will fail. What I like about your rules is that they are focused on adding that recommendation-esque value, and encourage thinking of monetizing Twitter less as “selling ad space” and more like “sharing/connecting other brands/entities with followers”

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  • Robert Quigley

    Jason + Kyle – You both make great points. It makes me kinda wish I added one more rule: No. 6: If you or your organization doesn’t understand Twitter and what makes it great, stay away from advertising until you do. ;)

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  • Rex Harris

    The “ethics” that surround the die hard Tweeters have basically put a strangle hold on the majority who would love to use it for advertising, but are afraid of the scrutiny they will suffer for doing so. You can just about hear the cries of “spam” before the Tweet button is clicked. While I'm sure the approach (and the niche of your Twitter account) play large into the relevance, I'm not sure that until we get an “official okay” from those who rule Twitter that it's something people are going to embrace.

  • golfman_story

    What I can say is very nice and helpful as well as informative post…really help me very much more!! Thanks..

  • Nikolai

    I wonder if anyone was actually successful with advertising on twitter through twitts as they disappear quite quickly. Maybe I do not really understand how twitter works but I do not see any real value to sending adtwitts.

  • Chris Hoff

    What I thought was great about that Tweet was that it honestly met the potential need of the reader. Someone following the events may have a real interest in getting those tickets. At the same time it brought attention to the advertiser.

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  • Thomas

    good insite keep the articles coming

  • Thomas

    For my improvment check out and let me know. Thanks

  • TwitterGuide

    Agree with Robert and Daniel as well as most of the other commentators. Twitterers are an agile/fickle crowd and will move on or unfollow when they feel hassled – more than 60% of Twitterers are less than 25y old… (…)

    So any advertising needs to be “organic” … eg part of the natural flow of tweets… not more than one “ad” ber 20 or so tweets!

  • Advertise on Twitter

    Thanks for the insights. It will help me as I try to find advertisers for my twitter service.

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