Sunday, February 7, 2016

Twitter’s Tinkering

At some point during the blizzard two weekends ago, Twitter stopped showing me advertisements. Maybe I should have been flattered. A Fast Company story, “Twitter Has Stopped Showing Ads To Its Most Valuable Users,” said an ad-free timeline is now the ultimate Twitter status symbol. The risk of being flattered would be that I might feel insulted the following weekend when the ads started to trickle back in.

“Most valuable” would be an exaggeration in my case, but Twitter has enough statistics to show that I am more valuable to it for the content I provide than for the advertisements I view — not really a surprise for a professional writer who has taken considerable trouble to master the 140-character format. You could make a case for not showing me any advertisements on Twitter. Some advertisements are irritating enough to push me off the service for a day at a time. But what would be better for Twitter is if it can get the content I provide and have me take in hundreds of advertising impressions. So Twitter is experimenting on me. If it perseveres, it will discover the kinds of advertisements that drive me away and will reserve those for other users (or perhaps start turning down those advertising placements if most users find them equally irritating). It will also find that I read and remember everything it puts in front of me and have a lower tolerance for repetition than the advertising industry would normally expect. Eventually I may have an effectively personalized advertising feed on Twitter.

Assuming Twitter succeeds at this, it is good news and bad news. Twitter needs advertising to survive and prosper, but effective marketing in any form is a double-edged sword. The goal of advertising is to control the mind of its target, yet if it accomplishes this consistently, it leads to avoidance in one form or another. To cite one of the most extreme examples of this, the charitable fundraising industry has learned to target retirees whose mental functioning has declined enough that they are highly suggestible in phone calls. These prime targets may make reliable donors, but if they go too far, a court may step in and takes their checking accounts away from them for their own protection, and then the charitable fundraisers get nothing. To look at a more pragmatic example, some of the retailers that were most effective at selling clothing in-store five years ago are now out of business. After spending a small fortune in these stores just two or three times, the best customers feel a twinge of guilt or fear when they think of going back. Customers then condition themselves to walk past the store without going in. For the store, this leads to bankruptcy. The issues with the advertisements in my Twitter feed are more subtle. If Twitter persuades me to take on the point of view of their advertisers, that takes away the distinctive point of view that makes my content valuable, and that in turn makes Twitter less compelling for those users who follow Twitter in part to see what I am saying. It matter little whether I start writing dull tweets that echo what the advertising on Twitter is already saying or censor myself, realizing that my thoughts are not so interesting, and write fewer tweets. Either way, the result is less content to discover on Twitter. Multiply this by a few million net content providers, and a breakthrough in advertising effectiveness could lead to a burst of revenue for one year, followed by a collapse as users abandon the suddenly stale platform.

The need to strike this balance between content value and advertising influence is nothing new. Newspapers know if they try to go past 10 percent advertising space on the front page and 80 percent inside, readers will learn not to open the paper. Commercial television has yet to find a way to push past 23 percent advertising time without losing the mass audience. Twitter is something new in the advertising world and no one really knows how far Twitter can push advertising without eclipsing the essential value of the service. That’s why it is important for Twitter to experiment at this point.