April 15, 2010, 12:00 AM

Twitter tweets the launch of its paid search advertising system

Advertisers including Best Buy Co., Starbucks and Virgin America are engaging in a new form of search marketing through Promoted Tweets, the new advertising system Twitter announced this week.

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Advertisers including Best Buy Co. Inc., Starbucks Corp. and the airline Virgin America are engaging in a new form of search marketing through Promoted Tweets, the new advertising system Twitter announced this week.

“Twitter is where we’re seeing a lot of customers communicate with us-many of them are communicating with our Blue Shirt employees through our Twelpforce service-so when Twitter asked us about participating in Promoted Tweets we saw it as a way to have more control over our brand perception and to elevate our Blue Shirt tweets through Twelpforce,” says Tracy Benson, senior director of digital media for Best Buy. Best Buy launched Twelpforce last fall as a way to let consumers get quick answers from its in-store sales associates, or Blue Shirts, on questions related to product recommendations or details on new product releases.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said in a Twitter blog posting on Tuesday that Promoted Tweet ads by Best Buy and other early advertisers will begin to appear one at a time on the top of some Twitter.com search results pages.

He added that the sponsored tweets will come from the same stock of regular tweets generated by Twitter users, but will have two main differences: their sponsors will pay a bid price, and they will need to “resonate” with Twitter users or be removed from the sponsored position. To resonate, the sponsored tweets must attract Twitter users who engage with them by replying to them, identifying them as among their favorite tweets, or retweeting them to other Twitter users, Twitter says.

Industry experts had mixed views of Twitter’s ad program.

“While there may indeed be lots of opportunity to use Twitter advertising effectively, we are halfway between a cautious optimism and a healthy skepticism,” says Kevin Lee, CEO of search marketing firm Didit.

Lee notes that Twitter users tend to be already overloaded with messages. “Twitter may suffer from the same problem that Facebook has,” he says. “Users are so engrossed in content provided by their social network, that they are nearly immune from advertising.”

Pam Abbazia, a search engine optimization and social media specialist with Digital Brand Expressions, a search marketing consulting and services firm, added in a blog posting this week that the Promoted Tweets program offers another way for advertisers to engage targeted consumers, but that success will require constant attention to ensure their tweets are pertinent enough to engage consumers and earn a good ranking.

“Promoted Tweets can be used for proactive reputation management-if your brand needs to get out in front of a conversation [for instance, respond to inaccurate or negative media coverage] this will be a great way to make sure your messages are front-and-center for other Twitter users to see,” she says.

But doing that effectively will require active participation in the Twitter community to maintain resonance with Twitter users-an effort that will only become harder after Twitter opens its ad program to more advertisers beyond the initial core group of Best Buy and others, she adds.

“If you were hoping for an easy way to promote yourself on Twitter without having to invest in the community, you’re out of luck,” she says. “You can’t just buy Twitter ads and be done with it. Once Promoted Tweets are available to all advertisers, you will need to maintain an active Twitter account and post engaging tweets that can then be featured through this system.”

That’s a strategy that Best Buy is already building on-and seeing impressive results after only the first two days, Benson says. She notes that many Best Buy`s customers share tweets with Best Buy employees and their friends about the trends in consumer electronics, such as the latest in 3-D TVs or virtual reality video games. Best Buy`s Twelpforce program, she says, has more than 2,500 registered members and has responded to more than 26,400 customer inquiries.

When Best Buy has taken some of the best of its tweets about such things and made them a Promoted Tweet, it has experienced a viral effect as customers re-tweet those messages to their network of friends, Benson says. Unlike other forms of search marketing, she adds, the original ad in this case, the initial Promoted Tweet, remains at the top of tweet content as it’s passed along through networks. She adds, however, that Twitter hasn’t yet determined how such viral distribution of sponsored tweets will be treated under Twitter’s fee structure.

According to the latest figures from comScore Inc., there 91 million searches worldwide on Twitter.com in February, down from 106 million in January but up from 50 million in May 2009. About one-third of the searches were in the U.S.

Twitter wasn’t the only company to launch a Twitter-related search marketing system this week. On Monday, TweetUp Inc., a start-up company founded by Bill Gross, a pioneer of paid search technology and the CEO of business incubator firm Idealab, announced that it would act as a marketplace that would let advertisers bid on keywords to make their tweets appear at the top of tweet search results displayed by TweetUp. TweetUp is using software to rank sponsored tweets on their relevancy to Twitter users, such as how often users interact with the sponsored tweets.

TweetUp also says it is signing distribution deals with web sites like Answers.com and BusinessInsider.com to present its Twitter search results to millions of users. TweetUp is backed by a group of investors including Index Ventures, Revolution LLC, First Round Capital and betaworks.

Gross in the late 1990s launched search engine GoTo.com, which was later renamed Overture and acquired by Yahoo.

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