Twitter Me This, Twitter Me That. (Just Don’t Twitter Me an Ad.)

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On the way to our SoHo office this morning…

I was pleasantly giving a first listen to the Clipse’s latest album, ‘Till The Casket Drops (of which I’m very pleased, by the way), when a strange fellow approached me on Broadway, asking me if I liked hip-hop (To describe this encounter as an inconvenient disruption to my morning pattern would be a huge understatement). I mistakenly removed my headphones, and answered (out of politeness), “yes,” to which he responded by immediately pulling out a mixtape (on CD! But that’s another story…) that I apparently needed to have…for $10. “I’m good,” I responded as I began to walk away, but this portly gentleman continued to follow and solicit me, ranting on that he was a great rapper, and that I’m “foul for not supporting hip-hop music.” Geez.

As annoying as that encounter might have been in the real world, imagine it happening in the digital world. Now imagine it happening time and time and time again. Daily.  This could be the future of social media.

The reality is, just how the real world has etiquette, digital communications operate under social principles, including the always applicatory “butting-in is rude”.  The power of monitoring tools, the openness of social communication and the capacity for laser-focused consumer targeting has created a culture where zealously analyzing the social web for insights and infiltrating conversations for awareness is an appropriate and savvy use of social technology.

But, the thing about transparency is that it’s a two-way street.

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71% of consumers “are aware that their browsing information may be collected by a third party for advertising purposes.”  They already realize (at least in broad terms) that their conversation and behavior are valuable to marketers. Many realize that that their digital conversations, especially on Twitter, can help generate revenue for brands. So what happens when “Consumer 2.0” starts demanding their share?

This brings us to our current predicament- last week, several articles and POVs appeared on the advent of what the marketing and advertising industry press is calling “sponsored tweets,” “pay-per-tweet,” etc., where brands enjoy a place within the Tweets of the Influential (musings from captains of industry, celebrities, and the blogosphere elite). The basic idea is that since consumers trust recommendations from familiar sources, they’re more likely to click-through to whatever offers are being “cosigned” on that Tweet. (Essentially paid media on Twitter, since Twitter doesn’t offer any advertising placements on their site.)

Should this gain headway, the first impression of many will probably be obvious: that these services- provided by vendors such as Ad.ly, Izea, and Likes.com- are tainting the purity of Twitter conversation, compromising their perception of the service.  Remember how quickly MySpace went from expression platform to ad vehicle in the eyes of its users?

The whole situation raises some key questions for me:

  • How valid (or valuable) are these recommendations given the fact that the FCC has recently imposed guidelines and standards to how products and services are promoted via social?
  • Will I still be excited about an offer should a signifier (“ad,” “sponsored” are the two of the more prevalent) appear next to it?
  • Is the credibility of the publisher sacrificed once they Tweet on behalf of, say, Target (hyatpothetically speaking, of course), and reduced to a digital flyer distributor?
  • Would it behoove Twitter to avoid conversation tampering and inject display advertising on high-traffic, high-volume account pages to avoid invading the conversation?
  • Is there quality control mechanism in place to ensure the delivery (and requested eyes) of these Tweets? Can we independently verify views, retweets, and CTRs?

These are just a few of the questions that come to my mind when analyzing the topic, which I’m positive will gain steam throughout early 2010. Twitter is a social phenomenon that transcends both traditional and digital communications, and I would be really disappointed to see it turn my friends and followers into “mixtape pushers.” Extending the metaphor: the issue isn’t the content or quality of the mixtape (it could’ve been the best piece of work EVER!), it’s the means by which it was presented and sold.

Give consumers what they want by allowing them to find the things you’re offering. Earn and maintain a presence and keep strong relevant associations; don’t appear like a snake oil salesman via the most pure of platforms.

Should this grim ad dystopia occur, for many users, like Jay-Z says, it’s “on to the next one.”