News Organizations Tap into Twitter, Facebook to Generate Ad Revenue

When I first wrote about Twitter in September 2007, few news organizations were using it, much less taking advantage of its potential. Now, many have embraced the social networking service, using it to attract new audiences, share content and create a conversation about the news they produce. But some are looking to do more.

The New York Times, The Austin American-Statesman and The Huffington Post are all experimenting with ways to generate ad dollars using Twitter and Facebook. This new approach, they’re finding, has benefits for both parties: News outlets reap the benefits of cultivating audiences on social networking sites, and advertisers engage in new ways with prospective consumers.

“Another benefit is that newspapers can reach out to advertisers that are smaller businesses who may have seen the cost of advertising in the newspaper as a barrier,” said Robert Quigley, the Austin American-Statesman’s social media editor. “There’s a low-cost entry into this for the advertisers.”

The Austin American-Statesman recently began to let advertisers pay for tweets that appear on two of the Statesman’s Twitter accounts, @Statesman and @Austin360. Two local businesses — a restaurant and “Mansion of Terror,” a local haunted house — took the Statesman up on its offer last fall and paid for a couple of days worth of tweets.

For $300 per day, the advertisers were given one tweet in the morning and one in the afternoon. They sent their tweet to Quigley, who looked it over and then sent it to a Statesman advertising representative to publish. Quigley said he worked closely with the paper’s ad department to establish some guidelines for advertisers. Here are some of them:

  • Advertisers are limited to two tweets per day.
  • Tweets must be 124 characters to allow for retweets.
  • Quigley must review tweets before they are posted.
  • Tweets have to be “actionable,” meaning they should prompt the user to do something. (e.g., instead of saying “Sam’s bar — the best beer in town,” the tweet should be more along the lines of, “Come to Sam’s Bar today. Mention this tweet for two-for-one drinks.”)
  • Tweets have to be followed by “(ad)” to help distinguish it from editorial content.
  • Tweets have to be entertainment-related.

The last guideline stems from a survey that Quigley asked the Statesman’s Twitter followers to fill out in fall 2008. One question asked what they thought about having advertisers tweet occasional ads from the Statesman’s Twitter account. The consensus from the 140 or so followers who completed the survey, Quigley said, was that people wouldn’t be opposed to the ads as long as they were in some way relevant to their lives.

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“What we tend to believe from our use of Twitter is that people who are on Twitter right now are relatively young, at least compared to our regular online and print readers, and they are also downtown-centric,” Quigley said. “We just thought this would be the sweet spot for things people would actually be interested in. What we wanted to avoid was a used car ad — a lot of the traditional advertisements we have in print or online — that we just didn’t think would work with this audience.”

One of the challenges, Quigley said, is getting advertisers to realize just how big of an audience some news organizations have on Twitter and Facebook. Another challenge is making sure that followers don’t feel as though they’re being bombarded by ads, or that their opinion isn’t valued.

After the Statesman’s first paid tweet was posted, Quigley asked the Statesman’s followers for feedback. Responses were mixed, he said, but most were positive. “Have no problem with @statesman tweeting ads. Non intrusive,” tweeted @BPLewis. An Austin blogger shared a different sentiment: “I’d rather see the Twitter page skinned with an ad or wrapped in advertising rather than being tricked by those I follow into thinking that ‘Buy 1 Get 1 Free’ is a local news story,” he wrote.

The Statesman, Quigley said, has found that regularly engaging with followers and responding to their feedback makes them more open to developments such as Twitter ads, and it tells them that a person is associated with the account.

“I think the community has to come first,” Quigley said. “We spend so much effort building this community that it wouldn’t be worth ruining over a couple hundred dollars a day.”

Showing advertisers the value of tapping into a social media audience

The Huffington Post is also hoping to take advantage of the revenue-building opportunities that social media presents by allowing advertisers to pay for tweets and comments. Greg Coleman, president and chief revenue officer of The Huffington Post, said the site has just begun to approach advertisers about this. No advertisers have bought into it yet, but he expects some will soon.

“This offering is a way for advertisers to be a part of the conversation happening on the Web — not just bystanders to it — in a completely transparent way,” Coleman said. He explained that advertisers’ tweets and comments would be clearly labeled so that users know where the information is coming from.

The Huffington Post plans to train advertisers on how to interact with its followers when tweeting ads.

“The point is for advertisers to contribute to the dialogue. We’re confident that advertisers will understand that it’s also not in their interest to use these new means of engaging users as another way to ‘hawk’ products,” Coleman said. “Instead, it’s an exciting way for them to connect with potential consumers and to generate goodwill by adding something of value to the user experience.”

The New York Times recently began selling packages of ads that appear for readers who come to nytimes.com content through Facebook and Twitter. Advertisers can buy a 25 to 50 percent share of these readers.

Denise Warren, senior vice president and chief advertising officer of The New York Times Media Group, said that so far, social media hasn’t yielded much revenue at the Times. But it has nevertheless shown promise.

“To try to figure out how to connect our advertisers with our readers who are socially engaged is so incredibly important,” Warren said. “This is new, and it’s not the biggest amount of revenue we’re making on anything we do by a long-shot, but it’s a way we are collaborating with our customers to take advantage of what is unique about this medium.”

Although Warren would not disclose which advertisers have expressed interest in these packages or how much they cost, she said several advertisers haves committed and several more are “excited” about the prospect of advertising this way.

“Advertisers are … looking for creative ideas around social media. It’s definitely something that’s gaining more interest than it did six or nine months ago,” Warren said. “It’s no secret that the consumer is interested in social communities and networking. Taking advantage of that is at the forefront of it all.”

The Times also recently sold one advertiser a program that incorporates Twitter feeds in online advertisements. The ad will contain a Twitter feed of the Times’ “most tweeted” articles on a particular topic related to the advertiser, such as health or food. The idea, Warren said, is that the feed will contain useful information for readers that is brought to them by the advertiser.

The Times, like the Statesman and The Huffington Post, are moving forward with caution but a willingness to take risks.

“As much as we want to find new ways to build revenue, I don’t want Twitter to be one giant billboard,” Quigley said. “But I think this is a worthy experiment. We shouldn’t be afraid to try new things.”

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