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November 14 2011

18:30

Can Twitter advertising really work for newspapers?

Remember when newspapers debated the value and merits of using Twitter? Well, there’s a new question for news organizations to consider: Can newspapers use Twitter for advertising?

In the last few weeks, The Hartford Courant and The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune have experimented with using Twitter as a new advertising channel. At the Courant, they’ve started offering twice-daily deals to local businesses — think Groupon by tweet — to their followers. The Times-Picayune, more controversially, used Twitter to advertise itself — or at least its website, as the online division of its parent company, Advance Publications, paid New Orleans Saints players to tweet about the newspaper’s relaunched Saints site on Nola.com.

This isn’t exactly new territory, as a number of papers have experimented with droppings ads into Twitter in the last year. (Not to mention non-news outlets like, um, Kim Kardashian, for whom pay-per-tweet is a long-standing phenomenon.) Tweets offer another ad unit to sell, and when you’ve got an advertising salesforce in place, it almost — almost — seems like a no-brainer. And with the money floating around the paid-tweet world, it’s hard not to blame news organizations for wanting in on the market; five figures for tweeting endorsements is well within the reach of a popular reality TV star. Can Twitter advertising for newspapers work?

When I called up the Courant to talk about their sponsored tweet program, digital platform editor Rick Hancock told me “we don’t like to talk about our business plans and strategies” and declined to comment further.

From what I can tell the Courant runs their promotions twice a day, in an a.m. and p.m. tweet marked with SPONSORED and a link to the advertiser’s own site. On Oct. 25, they ran two sponsored tweets, one for a local Nutcracker production, another for a liposuction business (the “Official body sculpting company of the Miss Connecticut Organization”). Using Twitter search, it doesn’t look like the tweets got much traction aside from a few comments questioning the tweets. But since the tweets had photos attached, a check of Twitpic stats shows the Nutcracker ad got at least 120 views and liposuction ad 115. One thing worth noting: I haven’t seen any sponsored tweets from the Courant since.

In the case of the Times-Picayune, the product being hawked was neither liposuction or dancing dolls but the paper itself, namely the newly redesigned site for the paper’s coverage of the Super Bowl XLIV-winning New Orleans Saints. Advance Digital paid five Saints players to tweet promotional links to the site, which is more focused on community features than its predecessor. According to a Times-Picayune story about the campaign (and the confusion inside the paper about it — the newsroom didn’t know about the arrangement):

For instance, [Saints quarterback Drew] Brees’ nearly 700,000 Twitter followers received this message on Oct. 18: “Who Dats! If you didn’t join the NOLA Saints community this morning… join now!” The post included a link to the Saints page on NOLA.com and was retweeted, or forwarded, by 29 people.

The following day, prolific tweeter Vilma wrote: “I’ve been checking out the new #Saints community on NOLA. All my Who Dats need to join!” Vilma’s post was retweeted by 10 of his followers.

(It’s worth noting that Brees’ tweet and Vilma’s ended with the hashtag #spon, which some social media types are pushing as a semi-legible indicator of a sponsored tweet. A Twitter search for #spon is an enlightening look into what sorts of companies are paying people to tweet: at the moment, Verizon, Clorox, Pepperidge Farm, and Q-Tips.)

Here, it’s also unclear what sort of impact the Twitter promotion may have had. I emailed John Hassell, vice president of content for Advance Digital, to ask about any impact to traffic to Nola.com and have yet to hear back.

Though using Twitter as an advertising medium is still relatively new for news organizations, two outlets, MinnPost and the Austin American-Statesman, were early to experiment with the idea.

Since 2009, MinnPost has been running “real-time ads” on their site, which incorporate a business’ Twitter or RSS feed. Joel Kramer, CEO and editor of MinnPost, told me they’ve brought in about $30,000 through the ads, but that figure amounts to less than five percent of all advertising revenue. Kramer said most businesses are excited at the prospect of social media and the idea of real-time ads, but enthusiasm doesn’t always translate into sales. “I would say most people we show it to find it cool and interesting, but most are still struggling thinking about that kind of ad,” said Kramer.

Robert Quigley, the former social media editor for the Statesman, said he considers Twitter a promising advertising medium, but one that’s particularly tricky for newspapers to monetize. Quigley, who’s now a professor of journalism at the University of Texas, said the problem isn’t the ethical issues (though they exist) but more about the systems in place for newspaper advertising.

The Statesman’s plan called for clearly labeled sponsored tweets twice daily on their main Twitter account as well as their Austin360 feed. The ad staff secured the business and crafted the message, and once it got the okay from Quigley, it would go into the streams. Quigley trained and advised the advertising staff on social media, as well as how to pitch businesses on the platform, but he said his editor didn’t want to blur the newsroom/advertising divide too much. “Our editor, rightly, was concerned about me getting too close to the advertising side,” he said. “He didn’t want me meddling too much around in advertising. I was a newsroom employee, a journalist, and that wall between the two crumbled a little bit.”

Even if you get past the ethical issue, there’s little incentive for advertising staffs to sell sponsored tweets. If CPMs for online ads are a drop in the bucket compared to rates for print ads, the cost of a sponsored tweet (reportedly $300 a day for the Statesman) is not going to make anyone forget department store inserts as a revenue source. Unsurprisingly, some advertisers still prefer an old school system even though sponsored tweets could offer improved metrics for evaluating ads through Bitly or other analytical tools. “It’s not a tried and true method,” he said. “Retailers love having statistics and the kind of results they’ve counted on for years.”

Maybe it’ll just take time for businesses to warm up to the idea of advertising through the newspaper on Twitter. But the platform poses another problem: Newspapers are trying to insert themselves as a middleman in a medium that doesn’t require one. Joe’s Pizza has the same ability to publish on Twitter as the local daily does, and the audience monopoly that once existed in print is exploded on a democratized medium like Twitter. Sure, that local daily likely has more followers than Joe’s — but maybe not, and that pizza joint has other routes to reaching Twitter users than buying space in the daily’s stream. Twitter provides a new audience, but it also provides a channel for businesses to take matters into their own hands.

Still, even an incremental amount of new revenue is still new revenue. But news organizations still have a lot of work to do to figure out how best to integrate ads and Twitter. “It hasn’t been completely figured out yet,” Quigley said. “Maybe there is no figuring it out. Perhaps advertising in the Twitter stream is something that won’t work very well.”

Image by Calsidyrose used under a Creative Commons license

November 05 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Rupert’s online reader purge, election-night innovation, and ideas at ONA10

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Skepticism about News Corp.’s paywall numbers: Future-of-news nerds have been watching the paywall at The Times and Sunday Times of London pretty closely since it was instituted in June, and we finally got our first hard numbers about it this week, from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. itself. The company said 105,000 readers had paid up — either as subscribers or occasional purchasers — for the paper’s site or iPad or Kindle apps, with another 100,000 activating free digital accounts that came with their print subscriptions.

To hear News Corp. execs tell it, those numbers marked a huge success. The Times’ editor told the BBC he’s “hugely encouraged,” and Reuters led with the fact that the drop in readership was less than The Times had feared. (TBD’s Jim Brady called this rhetoric the Spinal Tap defense — “it isn’t less popular, its audience is just more selective.”) But most everyone outside the company was skeptical. The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade and blogger and web activist Cory Doctorow both said we have no idea how successfully this paywall is until we have some more substantive numbers to dig into.

Fortunately, TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld and Reuters’ Felix Salmon found some other relevant data that helps us make a bit more sense of the situation: Schonfeld looked at the Times’ sites’ traffic dive and concluded that its strategy might be working in the short run but not long-term, and Salmon pointed to another report that contradicts The Times’ apparent theory that print circulation is dropping because people are reading the paper online. “The fact is that insofar as printed newspapers compete with the web, they compete with everything on the web, not just their own sites,” Salmon said. “No general-interest publication can prevent its print circulation from declining simply by walling itself off from the web.” The New York Observer’s Ben Popper saw the numbers as a potential readers-vs.-revenue paradox, and The Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh took a stab at what that revenue what be.

Other critics were even more harsh: Lab contributor Ken Doctor said The Times’ numbers “don’t seem to provide a path to a sustainable business future for the papers, as readers go digital,” and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that it’s time to officially deem the plans a bust. Former Guardian editor Emily Bell had the most insightful take on the situation, explaining that it indicates that The Times has become a mere pawn in Murdoch’s larger media-empire chess game, which means that “the influence game for The Times is up.” Once one of the world’s leading newspapers, “internationally it has no voice, or none to speak of, post the paywall,” Bell wrote.

Innovation on election night: The midterm elections made Tuesday easily the biggest day of the year in U.S. politics, but it was also an important day for news innovation as well. News organizations were trying out all kinds of flashy new web-related techniques and gizmos, all ably chronicled by Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman and by Matt Diaz here at the Lab. The online efforts were led by The New York Times’ streaming web video coverage and Twitter visualization, The Washington Post’s sponsored Twitter topic, and CNN’s web of holograms and magic walls.

Not all of those ambitious new-media efforts hit the mark: The Lab’s Megan Garber criticized The Times’ and Wall Street Journal’s webcasts for simply adopting many of cable news’ norms on the web rather than trying something web-native, saying they “had the feeling of trying to be cable news without actually, you know, being cable news.” And Poynter’s Regina McCombs had a tepid review of news organizations’ election-day iPad apps, giving them an A for effort and probably something around C+ for execution. “By the end of the night I was tired of how much work it was on mobile, and I went old school,” she wrote.

Of course, some things about the press’s election coverage never change: Most election-night TV coverage hasn’t been terribly helpful in the past, and this year it was marked by uneven analysis masked by excess. And leading up to the elections, the media again lavished the lion’s share of its attention on a fringe candidate with little chance to win but plenty of interesting sound bites. Election coverage didn’t come without a minor controversy, either, as ABC News invited and then uninvited budding conservative media mogul Andrew Breitbart to participate in its coverage. NYU professor Jay Rosen issued a warning to the mainstream press about welcoming in those who are openly hostile toward it.

Ideas, conversations and ‘evil’ at ONA10: Quite a few folks in the news and tech worlds were headed to Washington last weekend — not for the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally, but for the Online News Association’s annual conference. (OK, probably for the rally, too.) As usual, the conference featured plenty of nifty speakers and panels, all of which were captured on video and helpfully gathered in one place by Jeff Sonderman. Other sites also created visualizations of the tweets around ONA 2010 and the association’s members.

We got several varied but useful summaries of the conference, starting with the Lab’s Justin Ellis, who recreated its sessions, one by one, through tweets. Craig Silverman of PBS MediaShift was just about as thorough with a roundup of both days’ events, focusing largely on the conference’s three keynotes covering TBD, NPR, AOL, and WikiLeaks. Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore listed five key themes from the conference, including the emergence of investigative journalism online and the decline of the “Is this journalism?” debate. The Online Journalism Review’s Pekka Pekkala had a review of themes, too, and NPR’s Patrick Cooper had some more personal thoughts on the conference, noting the youth and energy of its attendees.

The individual session that drew the most attention was a conversation with NPR CEO Vivian Schiller and AOL CEO Tim Armstrong (liveblogged by Tenore), in which USC j-prof Robert Hernandez asked Armstrong of AOL’s controversial large-scale hyperlocal news initiative, “Is Patch evil?” Armstrong responded by defending AOL’s treatment of Patch editors and pointing out its connections with local bloggers in Patch blogs’ areas. In a blog post, Hernandez explained his question and gave his thoughts on Armstrong’s answer, concluding, “Under the umbrella of ‘we care about the community,’ this is a business venture. That’s not evil, that’s capitalism.” Two other sessions worth reading a bit about: Webbmedia’s Amy Webb on digital storytelling and several others with advice for would-be journalism entrepreneurs.

Twitter adds ads to the stream: Twitter took another step in its integration of advertising into its platform this week with the introduction of Promoted Tweets in users’ tweet streams. The tweets will initially be tested only with users of the Twitter application HootSuite, with Twitter selling the ads and HootSuite getting a cut of the revenue, according to Advertising Age. The Next Web chatted with HootSuite’s Dave Olson about how it will work, and said that Promoted Tweets have successful and relatively inoffensive so far: “Focusing on a good user interaction, instead of simply on the money, Twitter has kept its users and advertisers happy.”

ReadWriteWeb’s Mike Melanson talked to a few web experts on the potential for user backlash, and they seemed to agree that while Twitter will likely get some initially angry responses, it may end up keeping a satisfied user base if it reacts well to that initial response. As Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land explained, Twitter’s Promoted Tweets were also added to Google search results, lending some credence to Mathew Ingram’s assertion at GigaOM that Twitter is in the process of growing up from an awkward teenager into a mature adult right now.

Reading roundup: A few good things to read before I send you on your way:

— Two relatively lengthy first-person pieces by journalists who did stints with the content farm Demand Media were published yesterday: A more colorful one by Jessanne Collins at The Awl and a more contextualized one by Nicholas Spangler at The Columbia Journalism Review. Both are worth your time.

— Your iPad update for this week: AdWeek looked at why most media companies’ iPad apps have been disappointing, and New York and Newsweek magazines released their iPad apps — Newsweek’s with a subscription option.

— The Columbia Journalism Review ran a short but sharp editorial urging news organizations to work toward earning authority based on factual reporting, rather than cowering in ideological niches, and Free Press’ Josh Stearns connected that idea to the concept of “talking to strangers.”

— Finally, three miscellaneous pieces to take a look at: Investigative journalism veteran Charles Lewis’ map of the new public-service journalism ecosystem, Jason Fry’s list of five places sports departments (and any news department, really) can innovate, and Steve Coll’s open letter to the FCC on digital media policy.

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