Opportunity Is Ripe for Twitter to Offer Marketing Tools in 2010

There’s little doubt Twitter will be hailed as one of the success stories of 2009, having continued to grow throughout the year from the solid base it achieved during 2008, and attracting a steady stream of media attention along the way.

According to Nielsen, traffic to the network’s Web site alone increased 1,448 percent year-over-year in the month of May, from 1.2 million unique visitors in 2008 to 18.2 million in May 2009. That data excludes use from third-party software such as Tweetdeck and mobile applications, suggesting the actual numbers could be higher.

2009 also saw the advent of the celebrity Tweeter, as actors, musicians, athletes, and other public figures flocked to the site to promote themselves and their work. Unsurprisingly, brands and businesses weren’t far behind, and marketers and agencies have spent the year experimenting with the social network in a bid to find the best way to engage with users on behalf of their company or their client.

Indeed, some firms claim to have already used the social network to great effect, with some even boasting tangible ROI from their marketing efforts there. One such firm is Web site creation application maker Moonfruit, which ran a Twitter-based competition to celebrate its 10th birthday in July. The idea was a simple one: users that included the hashtag “#moonfruit” in their tweets were entered into a daily prize draw to win one of 10 Apple Macbooks.

The concept of a Twitter promotion was by no means a new one, but the reaction to the campaign was unprecedented. Within 48 hours of launching the competition, Moonfruit had topped Twitter’s trending searches ahead of major global events such the death of Michael Jackson, the Iranian elections, and the launch of Apple’s new iPhone.

Although the campaign was regarded by many as spam, and despite suggestions Twitter later manually removed the Moonfruit hashtag from its trending topics list, the company itself reported almost instant return on its investment — which was essentially the cost of the laptops it was giving away.

Speaking with ClickZ at the time, Moonfruit founder Wendy White said even she had been surprised by its success, and that the promotion drove a 600 percent uplift in traffic to the site and doubled the number of users signing up for its services within just two days. Commenting on the competition in August, Joe White, managing director of Moonfruit, said it paid for itself twice over in July alone through new subscriptions to its services.

Another major brand claiming substantial uplift in sales through its activity on Twitter this year was hardware manufacturer and retailer Dell. The company said its @dellOutlet account, which promotes offers on refurbished Dell merchandise, had driven over $3 million in sales since its conception in 2007. Dell’s digital media communications team acknowledged that $3 million in sales isn’t huge for a brand like Dell, but suggested the effort still was worthwhile. That said, there’s little to suggest that those sales wouldn’t have been made with promotion through other channels.

Perhaps as a result of the success experienced by brands such as Moonfruit and Dell, a range of consumer brands launched Twitter-centric social media campaigns in the latter half of the year.

Cobra beer, for example, recently launched a U.K. campaign dubbed “Twindaloo,” designed to address the brand’s target audience of curry-loving beer drinkers. Again taking advantage of the viral nature of the network, the campaign drove users to a dedicated microsite which analyzed the content of their tweets via Twitter’s API, and drew parallels between what they posted to Twitter and different types of curry. For instance, “straightforward, honest” tweeters were dubbed “Bhunas,” after the strong-flavored curry. Users were then prompted to tweet the result, including a link to the site and a related hashtag.

That campaign is indicative of the majority of marketing currently found on the network. Yet, suggestions have been made that Twitter itself may start to clamp down on or charge for commercial use of that nature. One concern is that a proliferation of commercial campaigns on Twitter could easily irritate users. Twitter plans to introduce premium features for companies using the network early in the new year. For instance, it introduced a beta test of new feature called “Contributors” that will allow multiple users to contribute to one corporate account. Whether new features will come in the shape of additional free tools, or paid services for commercial use remains to be seen.

In addition, questions are also being asked about the effectiveness of marketing on the platform, particularly in comparison to more traditional media. Although access to the network is free, maintaining an effective presence can prove both time and labor intensive, and the ROI on such activity remains difficult to gauge.

“Social media marketing gets a lot of attention, and there are some great practitioners in that space, but there aren’t many examples of that activity translating into concrete, tangible results,” said Jeff Dachis, former Razorfish CEO and founder of social technology consultancy Dachis Group.

Social media agencies aren’t the only ones attempting to benefit from Twitter’s rapid growth. A number of firms are also offering users the chance to sell their tweets to sponsors, with users often paid on a cost-per-click basis. However, to some, that type of activity clutters the site, therefore diminishing the value for its users.

Going into 2010, Twitter may find it needs to begin to regulate marketing activity more closely, as it battles to retain users’ attention and its relevance, particularly in comparison to other social sites such as Facebook. Surely marketers will be waiting with baited breath to see what else might be on offer in 2010, and if those features are worth paying for.

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