As Twitter continues to see dramatic growth — and some related reliability issues — the social network is busy trying to expand the monetization of its growing user base. The latest piece of that puzzle emerged this week with the launch of a Twitter offering called @earlybird. In a nutshell, it’s a special Twitter account users can follow and get access to time-limited offers from advertisers on a variety of products and services. Whether it will catch on with users remains to be seen — although the response to the first-ever offering is encouraging.
The first update from the @earlybird account came on Wednesday, with a two-for-one deal from Disney Pictures for tickets to the new movie “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The tweet came with a special hashtag — #SorcerersApprentice — and a link to a page describing the offer (for tickets through Fandango) shortened with Twitter’s built-in link shortener, t.co. The @earlybird account posted a followup about the offer, and another on Thursday. By Friday, the link went to a page saying the offer had been sold out.
The @earlybird service joins Twitter’s other monetization attempts, most of which are relatively recent. One called “promoted tweets” was announced at the company’s Chirp conference for developers in April. It involves advertisers paying to post what are effectively ads in the Twitter stream of updates. The second feature was a related one called “promoted trends,” which allows advertisers to buy trending topics, which appear on the right-hand side of the Twitter home page. Interestingly, however, if the promoted tweets and trends don’t achieve what the company describes as “resonance” — based on some kind of internal algorithm that determines how many times they are shared or re-tweeted — those specific tweets or trends will disappear from the Twitter stream.
In some ways, these other monetization features are a lot closer to traditional marketing and advertising than the @earlybird account. In much the same way that TV ads appear whether a viewer wants them to or not, Twitter users don’t have much choice when it comes to seeing promoted tweets and trends in their stream or on the page. The @earlybird account, however, requires that a user follow it in order to see the offers, meaning it requires an “opt-in” choice as opposed to appearing by default. That makes it a lot closer to what marketers call “permission marketing” — something social networks are good at doing — rather than traditional advertising, and that is a good thing.
Twitter’s challenge is much like the one faced by other social networking sites, such as Facebook: The power of social media lies in being able to see what users do, then target advertising to them based on that activity and their related interests. If a company tries to do that too directly and without asking permission, however, then it can get into thorny issues of privacy. Such is the case for Facebook, with its Beacon service (which was eventually discontinued after widespread criticism) and its “instant personalization” feature, both of which landed the company in hot water not just with users but also with the government and privacy advocates.
If Twitter is smart, it will continue making its advertising-related monetization features “opt-in” and permission-based like @earlybird, and avoid any Facebook-style unpleasantness.