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November 14 2011


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 08 2010


Can Social Sharing Survive the Rise of Rewards-Based Campaigns?

Left alone in a room, a group of people were given a complicated seven-piece puzzle, known as a Soma cube, and told to assemble the pieces into specific designs. One group was offered a monetary reward for each correctly assembled puzzle; another group was offered nothing. They worked at the puzzles until being told they could stop. And then the experiment really began.

Edward Deci, the research psychologist behind the study, told the subjects to read a collection of magazines while he recorded his findings. Instead of tabulating the puzzle data, he observed the subsequent behavior of both groups. The group promised payment tended to quit assembling the puzzles, picking up the magazines instead. The group offered nothing was more likely to keep trying.

"When money was used as an external reward, intrinsic motivation tended to decrease," Deci wrote of the experiment. (Click this link to read the full paper, "The Effects of Externally Mediated Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation," as a PDF.)

Deci's psychological experiment precedes the invention of Facebook by 24 years and Twitter by more than a quarter of a century. But it's even more relevant today as the influx of rewards-based campaigns by brands -- such as coupons, free giveaways, discounts -- changes the nature of sharing on social media. Facebook just announced "Deals," a feature that allows brands to offer a reward to consumers willing to share their location. Major brands have signed up for the service, including Starbucks and McDonald's.

Social media "rewards our intrinsic desires for membership and sharing as well," writes Clay Shirky in "Cognitive Surplus." If a substantial body of research on human motivation says people aren't really motivated by monetary reward, why are brands taking this approach?

Rewards-Based Sharing

In part, because it works. Consumers who "like" brands on Facebook have been inundated with monetary rewards and free food. Chipotle's Halloween social media Screen shot 2010-11-04 at 4.22.40 PM.pngcampaign included free Booritos and a chance at $7,500 in cash prizes to people willing to dress up like a "horrifying processed food product."

Consumer products behemoth Procter & Gamble recently launched Future Friendly, a campaign that offers as much as $200 in annual rewards per household for recycling, green blogging and sharing with friends.

Granted, sharing content online in social media platforms is not exactly the same as putting together a complicated puzzle, but if the core of Deci's theory of human motivation holds true in the fragmented and chaotic environment of the social web, it raises an important question: Can sharing for sharing's sake survive in an ecosystem that increasingly turns every sharing exchange into monetary reward?

It's telling that a recent report proves what common sense tells us: The motivation to "like" a brand on Facebook is most often driven by monetary gain, with 40 percent saying they become fans to receive discounts and promotions. Yet only a small percentage of consumers (17 percent) say they're more likely to buy a brand after becoming a "fan" on Facebook, according to the same survey.

Of course, there's a longstanding gulf between what consumers say they do in self-reported quantitative studies, like the one cited above, and what consumers actually do in the real world. And, in most cases, it remains impractical to link transactional sales data to a person's "fan" status on Facebook.

This gulf isn't really new. Mass advertising can't make a clean connection with sales, either. But it's far easier to see results in the social media space -- fan growth, wall posts, sharing and tweets. Even if fan numbers don't prove deep loyalty to a brand, it's a metric nonetheless. Although with "Deals," this long coveted link might be easier to make.

Social Media Spend On The Rise

A consumer deciding to "like" a brand on Facebook isn't much different from the old-school way of signaling brand affinity by, say, wearing a Coca-Cola T-shirt.
Screen shot 2010-11-04 at 4.24.37 PM.pngIt's just now there's something given in return for effectively wearing a logo T-shirt online, be it a coupon for a box of onion rings from White Castle or a $1 off coupon from Tide. And that's one reason the deluge of rewards-based social media campaigns isn't going to stop.

Consider that in 2010, a mere 5.9 percent of marketing budgets was spent on social media. By 2015, this should explode to 17.7 percent, according to a recent survey of CMOs by Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Facebook has survived the rash of branded pages and reward-driven ad campaigns. It continues to add users at an astonishing clip. But is there a line when the commercialization of the human impulse to share becomes just too crass?

In announcing the launch of "Deals," on its blog, Facebook noted that "today's mobile phones allow people to connect on the go and to share interesting moments as they happen all around them." Could Facebook users' walls end up full of brags about freebies? Indeed, how many of us haven't shared the details of a bargain with friends, colleagues and family. This too is a very real human impulse. The question is whether this flood of ads and rewards changes irrevocably the essential nature and ecosystem of social media today.

Meanwhile there's a fledgling movement to take back the social web and create new environments brands can't co-opt. Diaspora, an alternative platform that touts itself as the privacy-aware, personally controlled, do-it-all open-source social network, is the antithesis of Facebook.

As Diaspora's founders try to build an alternative social network, Twitter is quickly adding advertisers and expects to have more than 100 by the end of the year. The micro-blogging site, which has just started publishing ads in users' streams to execute a moneymaking corporate strategy, will now be commercialized just like Facebook.

Twitter has arguably thrived by tapping into the intrinsic human motivation to share ideas, musings and interesting links. Could the flood of ads -- and, undoubtedly, rewards and coupons will be part of this -- unwittingly suppress the human desire that's driven its success?

Mya Frazier is director of trends and insights at Engauge, one of the nation's largest independent advertising agencies. As the advertising correspondent for MediaShift, she chronicles the impact of digital, mobile and social marketing trends on content, culture and commerce. A former business journalist, she has been a staff writer at Advertising Age, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and American City Business Journals. Her work has also appeared in the Economist, New York Times and Next American City. You can follow her on Twitter @myafrazier or at myafrazier.tumblr.com.

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