Yes, it's no secret that Twitter can be a tremendous time-suck. But imagine getting paid for wasting those precious minutes of your day. Thanks to companies that are desperate to reach consumers in the social-media crowd, it's now possible to make a buck or two or much more on Twitter. A company called IZEA, which made its name connecting bloggers with companies willing to compensate them for plugs on their sites, has set up a similar service for the Twittersphere. At the appropriately named site Sponsored Tweets, Twitter users can sign in, set the price they want companies to pay them for the privilege of tweeting an ad on their behalf, and wait for the offers to come in. "I'm a stay-at-home mom who uses Twitter while the kids are napping," says Jocelyn French, mother of a 2-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter. Through Sponsored Tweets, she has tweeted on behalf of Kmart, a parenting website and a college-information site, among others, each for $1 a pop. "I figure, hey, why not get paid at the same time?" French says.
Ted Murphy, founder and CEO of IZEA, says more than 7,000 Twitter users have signed up for Sponsored Tweets in its first month. Murphy says about 500 advertisers, mostly small- to medium-size businesses, plus a handful of Fortune 500 companies, are using the platform. Marketers have access to the entire database of tweeters and can select whom they want to pay and how much they're willing to dish out. Compensation is based on a user's expertise or passion, how many followers that person has and other metrics, like how often the tweeter's followers click to links posted on his or her Twitter page. Murphy says he has paid more than $100,000 to Twitter users in his site's first month of operation. As commission, he charges companies 15% to 50% of their payments to the microbloggers.
For users like French, sponsored Twitter messages are a way to pocket spare change on the side. But for many others, this movement of marketers into the Twittersphere could be another reason to despise the whole Twitter craze. It's painful enough to get regular updates on your neighbor's dinner plans. What if he started littering your inbox with product pitches? "Sponsored Tweets is controversial," acknowledges Robin Dance, a part-time fundraiser and blogger from Chattanooga, Tenn., who has amassed an impressive 2,800-plus-strong Twitter following and has also tweeted for Kmart. "I've had good friends and fellow bloggers say they have no use for Sponsored Tweets, and will un-follow me if I use it. They say I'm selling out, that it's Twitter blasphemy." If anything, Twitter is supposed to be real at times, perhaps too real (no, I did not need to know the details of your stomach virus). That could be lost if it gets commercialized. "How do you preserve the authenticity of the conversation?" asks Pete Blackshaw, a brand strategist and social-media expert for Nielsen Online. "That's what everyone is struggling with."
For example, tweets that are sponsored raise the messy issue of disclosure. If someone speaks highly about a product on Twitter, don't followers have a right to know if that messenger is a compensated mouthpiece? Murphy insists that all tweets that flow through his site will carry some form of disclosure. For example, French's Kmart tweet reads: "Bluelight Special Alert: This Saturday at Kmart all patio furniture is 70% off! For more deals follow http://bit.ly/tupjE
Even with full disclosure, paid tweets carry risks for brands. If it's clear that a company is paying a Twitter user to put in a good word for them, will the message ring true or reek of desperation? "Oh no," says Tom Aiello, spokesman for Sears Holdings Corp., Kmart's parent company. "A lot of brands have had successful campaigns go through the paid side." Still, brand strategists recommend that companies tread into the Twittersphere lightly. Real word of mouth is much more valuable. "I have urged clients to be very cautious about pay-to-say on Twitter," says Blackshaw. "Get the word out naturally. There's lots of love on the organic side; go for that first."
Tweeters must be careful too. Stuffing your Twitter feed with advertisements is a good way to lose followers and even real friends. "I do understand the arguments against Sponsored Tweets," says Dance, the Tennessee blogger who plans to use the service (she won't disclose her price). "But I'm not going to be flooding someone's Twitter stream. There's nothing subversive about it. It's just a little payback for the four years of my life I've invested in my blog."