Ads Creep into Twitter Timelines, but Don’t Panic Yet

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Twitter has devised a way for advertisers to make their messages more prominent in users’ timelines, but it’s not the full-fledged ad invasion that you might be fearing.

Starting today, Twitter is rolling out “Promoted Tweets” for companies like Dell, Gatorade, Groupon and HBO, as well as some non-profit organizations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation and American Red Cross. If you follow any of these brands on Twitter, certain messages may appear toward the top of your timeline, with a small icon at the bottom of the message indicating that the tweet was promoted. After you’ve seen a Promoted Tweet once, it’ll never again bubble to the top of your timeline, and you can always scroll right past it like any other tweet or dismiss the tweet with one click.

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Twitter is spinning this as “a way to ensure that the most important Tweets from the organizations you follow reach you directly, by placing them at or near the top of your timeline.” Of course, importance is in the eye of the brand, so we’ll have to see whether Promoted Tweets get used primarily for useful messages—say, great deals or new product launches—or just boring old ads.

Still, this is a fairly mild approach to timeline ads by Twitter. Users won’t see Promoted Tweets unless they’re already following the participating brands, and can always unfollow a brand if its promotions get too annoying. In the best case scenario, companies may become less inclined to send out lots of spammy messages because their Promoted Tweets are guaranteed to be seen.

Twitter must have learned some lessons from its iPhone app, which in March was updated to include a bar at the top of the timeline with trending topics and occasional promotions. The Quickbar, or dickbar as it was dubbed by angry users, quickly caused a backlash among users who found it intrusive. Twitter eventually backtracked and removed the Quickbar entirely.

If Twitter wants to make money on advertising without alienating users, it needs to proceed with caution. My guess is that Promoted Tweets won’t cause another outrage. The question is how far Twitter can expand its advertising efforts without crossing that line again.

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