But aren't these programs rewarding scam artists who boost their follower count through artificial means or sneak in ads that look like regular tweets? Surprisingly, for the most part, the answer is no.
This is part 2 of a two part series on paid tweets. See part 1 here.
Paid Tweets: Not a Gold Rush for Most Users
Janet Thaeler only has around 7400 followers on Twitter which puts her far from celebrity status. Occasionally she'll tweet a relevant ad to her engaged followers, averaging around two per month. They've never brought her big bucks, though. The most she's ever been paid is $20 per tweet.
Tim Kissane is in a similar boat. With only around 6000 followers, he's not tweeting to a massive crowd. The least he's been paid is $2 per tweet; the most is $38.50. Tim says that none of the services he's tried, which include Sponsored Tweets, Magpie and Twittad have earned him any "significant revenue" and dubs his payouts "chump change." Tim says that's he's disappointed with the services. "Unless I drop my price significantly, I will receive no offers," he laments. "For instance, Twittad estimates my ad value as ~$471/month." However, "the few offers I get average $8-$12/week. And even those are scarce."
But perhaps Tim, like many others, was expecting paid tweets to serve as a steady source of secondary income when it is, in reality, no more than the Twitter equivalent of an online display ad similar to those you would see on someone's blog.
In fact, that's the very model that Ad.ly hopes to reproduce with their system. Instead of promoting the whole "conversational marketing" mumbo-jumbo which purports that people will buy from companies their friends recommend, Ad.ly says their system is the Twitterized version of the already successful display ad model. As with bloggers hosting ads on their site, Ad.ly thinks that Twitter users should be able to monetize their content too. However, unlike display ads, Twitter CTRs (clickthrough rates) are much, much higher. Five times the industry average, says Ad.ly CEO Sean Rad.
Other Twitter advertising companies report similar high levels of engagement. Magpie even claims their average clickthrough is the unheard of 2%. Twittad says their click to conversions (aka "call to action") is well above 8-10%.
Rewarding Engagement, Not Just Numbers
A consistent factor among the majority of the companies is the use of systems and algorithms that take into account not just raw follower counts, but the engagement levels of those followers. Ad.ly's algorithms, for example, look at the quality of someone's followers to determine what prices to pay. Too many spammers and bots following you and the payout goes down. And if you're a spammer - in other words, tweeting out too many ads yourself - the price goes down even further. So far, in fact, that you probably won't even find using their system worthwhile. Magpie and Sponsored Tweets, too, say follower counts are not how they determine success. Twittad's formula also looks beyond follower counts to see how active a certain Twitterer is before determining their payout amount. In other words, you can't simply turn on auto-follow via a third party service and boost your follower count to high levels and then expect to start earning money. Only real, engaged users communicating to a real, engaged following are rewarded via these programs.
Disclosure: Are Ads Sneaking into Your Stream?
Another surprise is how strict many of the companies are about following the rules of disclosure - that is, making sure tweets are labeled as ads in some way, shape or form. Each company involved has their own method for this, however, some are more obvious than others.
WOMMA (Word of Mouth Marketing Assoc.) is established. Sponsored Tweets uses a disclosure engine that makes their users choose from a set of options, too, which includes #ad and many others. Ad.ly users have "(ad)" placed in their tweets for them and, even better, their ad messages can't be rewritten by their users - the system automatically sends out the tweets, disclosure and all. Twittad, on the other hand, doesn't require disclosure but uses a "sponsor URL" of http://spon.in. Click through on any Twittad link and a banner at the top of the page appears reading "providing disclosed sponsorship in updates."Magpie requires their users to choose between #ad, #advert, #sponsor, etc. until a definitive recommendation from either the FTC or
However, there are still ways around some of these disclosure systems. For example, prolific Twitterer John Chow notes that with Sponsored Tweets, you can reword the ad however you want. Since they allow you to use "brought to you by" as one of the disclosure mechanisms, you could write: "Hey guys! I found this great $1.99 web hosting deal bought to you by bluehost. Go check it out. URL" and get away with it.
This tricky workaround to the disclosure requirements, not too mention the various methods employed by the companies to meet disclosure requirements, are one main area that needs improvement. Consistent guidelines for paid tweeting should be established and adhered to by all companies involved. Without standards, it's a lot easier to mistake an ad for a regular tweet if you're not paying careful attention.
Companies are Paying, but Issues Remain
Despite the grumblings in the Twitter community about how paid tweets will start mucking up the stream, advertisers haven't been afraid to get on board and give pay-per-tweet ads a shot. The Twitter ad companies have all worked with major brands including Sears Holdings (Twittad), Hershey's (Magpie), Sony Playstation (Magpie), LG (Sponsored Tweets), Volvo (Sponsored Tweets), Talbots (Sponsored Tweets), Sony Electronics (Ad.ly), Ralph Lauren (Ad.ly), Bing (Ad.ly) and Bookrenter.com (Ad.ly), just to name a few.
Still, not everyone is happy with their results. Deborah Blake with IntroSpectrum has just started using Sponsored Tweets and Magpie. With Google AdWords, she's seeing right around $.50 CPC (cost-per-click) but through Magpie she's seeing about $3 CPC. Sponsored Tweets is about the same, she says. Also, Magpie reports 0.65% CTR for the campaign, but the company's own analytics indicate a much lower rate. She can't be sure if their internal analytics are missing some clicks or if Magpie is over-estimating, though. However, the CTR is much lower than Magpie's claimed average of 2%.
However, even Blake is willing to give the Twitter ad agencies the benefit of the doubt. "I want to emphasize...this is a pretty small sample size so far, and besides that our AdWords campaigns have been optimized over the course of many months...," she notes. "We can't draw any firm conclusions yet, but my expectations are that quality traffic through Twitter advertising will be significantly higher cost than traditional online channels."
In the end, it's probably still too soon for advertisers to truly get a grip on whether the quality traffic from Twitter ads is worth the price. While it's one thing to track clickthroughs and conversions, it's much harder to track the positive or negative feelings generated by ads that may impact sales further down the road. For now, though, it seems some advertisers are willing experiment, some Twitter users are willing to tweet for pay and surprisingly, some Twitter users are willing to follow those that do.