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Tweet Science

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Nicole Polizzi, A.K.A. @Sn00ki: “When your ass and chest is on fire cuz you used too much tingle in the tanning bed #GuiDeTTeProblems !!!”

This is the power and the greatest weakness of Twitter: the irresistible urge to advertise oneself. The impulse to make life a publicly annotated experience has blurred the distinction between advertising and self-expression, marketing and identity. Everyone is a celebrity, in the same stream. Marketers, too. And behind the scenes, advertisers are using an interface you’re unlikely to see: a “dashboard” for watching you watch them, the online back room where ­Volkswagen and Virgin America and ­RadioShack and Starbucks are tracking their attempts to inject themselves into the conversation. This dashboard shows “how many times you’re mentioned, how many people are following you, and a key measure, how many people are unfollowing you,” explains a Twitter employee while demonstrating the dashboard on a silver MacBook in a conference room one morning in July.

This is the staging ground for making Twitter into a multibillion-dollar company. An advertiser like Starbucks or VW can buy access to different parts of the Twitter experience, placing its messages atop the list of the most-tweeted hashtags, or inside the Twitter feeds of people who already follow the brand, have a friend who does, or simply tweet about a related subject. Soon there will be a self-serve option, allowing smaller advertisers to sign up and instantly get into the mix. In every case, companies can monitor the response with a Twitter stock chart, the zigs and zags of how many clicks, replies, and retweets (when a tweet is passed along) are coming in. If nobody’s responding, the ad disappears.

“There’s this big gap, no doubt about it, between awareness on Twitter and engaged on Twitter,” says its CEO.

The idea is that by studying how people are reacting to a message, advertisers can experiment with different voices, personalities, pitches, and ideas and calibrate the tweet so the Twitter charts keep going up and not down. Adam Bain, a former News Corp. advertising executive who is now Twitter’s head of global revenue, describes it as “transparent” marketing.

Or maybe just more stealthy. In January, Audi promoted a Twitter hashtag in a Super Bowl TV ad, telling people to go to Twitter and talk about what the concept “progress” meant to them, using the hashtag #progressis. As the hashtag went viral, Audi’s message was circulated through a kind of conversational side door. “Essentially, when you went to the Twitter site, you saw almost the whole world entering a conversation about a concept, progress,” says Bain. “And Audi owned this concept of progress on Twitter for months.”

The goal is to make advertisers members of the influencer class, cultivating the same credibility as Kutcher and Obama and getting Twitter users to retweet them as they would a friend. “Part of the magic for us is getting marketers to be in that center,” Bain says, “and making them some of the most influential, because they have interesting things to say … The amazing thing is that people are retweeting messages from marketers at a really large rate, and it’s uniquely Twitter.”

Twitter wants to be a place where the distance between celebrities and brands shrinks to next to nothing, where retweeting an advertisement is practically a function of who you are.

Twitter’s model harks back to the early days of television, when the shows were the ads. In a way, it’s a simpler world. Reality-TV socialite Kim Kardashian charged $10,000 a tweet to promote a product to her then–2 million followers (“Check out my commercial for @carlsjr … What do you think?”). To convince advertisers to pay Twitter, and not Kim Kardashian, Twitter needs mass scale, to “surface” all manner of customers to advertisers in a predictable and measurable way, over and above what they can achieve with one or two celebrity Twitter feeds. Twitter’s not there yet.

“They don’t have sufficient scale to make them a meaningful first-tier player in the social-media landscape,” says John Battelle. “I can go to Yahoo, Microsoft, even Federated Media, and I can get tens of thousands of people I care about on a schedule I care about with returns on investment that I can optimize.

“The real business that needs to scale is the promoted tweets,” continues Battelle. “How you get the right promoted tweets in front of the right person at the right time—it’s the same problem as surfacing the content.”

Twitter could soon make a big leap in users when its network gets integrated as the in-house social media in Apple’s new mobile software, opening up the possibility of funneling some 200 million users into its service. But for every user Twitter adds, there is now the threat of losing one as well—to Google+, the search company’s Twitter-like social platform that offers more control over who sees what and when and is attached to a familiar online environment.


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