Thumbs up for Roger Ebert's new revenue model on Twitter

Six weeks into what some have billed "the year of paid content," the most interesting ideas I've seen so far have less to do with corporate policy than they do with personal enterprise.

My colleague, Mallary Tenore, wrote Friday about the success NPR's Andy Carvin has enjoyed in encouraging his Twitter followers to support their local public radio stations.

This week, amid ongoing debate about whether content creators will ever share any of the value they've built for the likes of HuffingtonPost and Twitter, I've been watching the little revenue stream that Roger Ebert has flowing with his tweets.

About 1 a.m. Wednesday, after a day of tweets about Jane Seymour's birthday, the replacement of Ebert's feeding tube and Middle East analysis, the legendary film critic tweeted this: "Western Digital WD TV Live Network-ready HD Media Player, 23% off. Everything seems to be moving in this direction."

The untrained eye might not notice that shortened "amzn" link as a signal that Ebert stands to take a 7 percent cut on purchases his followers make after clicking into, but his commercial Tweets have grown common enough that regular followers are surely getting the message.

Ebert says he devotes an average of four of his 25 to 30 daily Tweets to recommendations for merchandise available for sale at He does that as an Amazon affiliate, an arrangement that more and more publishers (including Poynter) have made with the online retailer in recent years.

Amazon links have more traditionally been embedded in text or listings (for books, for example), as opposed to Tweets, which more typically include a dimension of recommendation as well as information.

Any framework for generating revenue from social media should reflect the ethos of the medium itself: personal, authentic, respectful of audience and relevant to the context. From what I can tell scanning his recent tweets, Ebert measures up to those, with a few question marks involving unusual merchandise. But even his tweets about clothing, for the most part, somehow fit.

The size of Ebert's audience (approaching 350,000 Twitter followers as of Thursday morning) is not the only element that sets him apart from other journalists. A commercial message that makes sense for a critic raises a whole other set of questions for a journalist whose focus is fact as opposed to opinion.

When asked about his Amazon deals by Christopher Heine of ClickZ, Ebert published his answers on his Sun-Times blog: "Have I made a fortune from Amazon? No. Have I made some? Yes. Am I happy to have it? You bet. Have I been amused? Yes. It's kind of like fishing."

Ebert also invited users to have their say about his Amazon ads, and more than 100 did so.

A few raised objections, but most told him, in effect, "no big deal," or thanked him for the valuable tips he provides about good buys in videos, books, clothing and, among other things, coconut milk.

"Glad to have the tips, Roger! Keep 'em coming," wrote DannyNM.

Another reader wasn't so sure at first. "I was disconcerted the first few times I followed one of Robert Ebert's links to Amazon," wrote Joann DiNova, "but have since welcomed them with interest. It's rather like having a worldly, knowledgeable, interesting uncle who is sharing unusual or hard-to-find or little-known things I know I'm likely to appreciate. And his interests always tell me more about him that I'm happy to learn."

Some of Ebert's Amazon tweets, which he says are transparently commercial by virtue of the shortened "amzn" link, provoke debate and discussion among followers who challenge the value of the item or send Tweets with what they maintain are better deals. An hour after Ebert tweeted the link to the high def media player this morning, for example, a follower tweeted what he insisted was a better deal.

One commenter on Ebert's blog encouraged him to use "an established Twitter network like Magpie or SponsoredTweets," where he might generate as much as $200 per Tweet.

In his interview with ClickZ, Ebert said he's not interested in options like that: "No tweet of mine is or ever has been 'spnsored' or paid. Every tweet is my own doing. I will never, ever, have a sponsored Twitter account. ... I write every single word on my Twitter account, and everything else under my name."

SponsoredTweets offers proportionately less for Twitter accounts with fewer followers, of course, as I discovered when I found tweets to my 1,700 followers valued at about $1.93 each. (I opted out.)

Ebert was wise to do so, too, even though the financial sacrifice is a lot bigger for him than it would be for me. SponsoredTweets stresses that the user has the final say whether to send one of its commercial messages or not, but that misses the point. Even if I don't object to the commercial message I'm sending, it's still someone else's message going out under my name -- a fundamental violation of the social media ethos.

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Ebert is becoming something of a digital revenue innovator. I wrote last year about the membership model for his newsletter.

Update: I followed up this report with a new post that includes information from an e-mail exchange with Ebert.

Next up on NewsPay: another example of social media revenue.

  • Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill headed for 10 years.


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