Celebrity tweets have been for sale for a while. Services like ad.ly and others sell one-time tweets from celebs like Kim Kardashian and Snoop Dog for $1K-10K. BusinessWeek even covered the practice in this weeks issue. (here's a link to a related article in the online BusinessWeek)There are few new services cropping up. PayWithATweet.com is s recent example. Clearly a nascent service cooked up by a couple of agency guys trying to help bands or small business get the word out, this premise is similar. You can receive compensation in the form of product or payment for tweeting out a promotional message.
Is this an effective paid strategy? Are there any hidden ethical challenges with this approach to marketing?
The value of social media is the real “earned media" it generates and propels. When any one of us retweets something, comments, "likes" and so forth, we are in some small way endorsing or recommending that content. Conceptually, that content must provide some value and relevance to you for you to bother passing it along. I follow people who share their POV about the things that matter to them.
Paid placements may sound appealing in terms of scale or reach but the quality and efficacy of such a strategy is really questionable. I realize why the promise is attractive - messages get passed via people you know or feel you have an affinity for, Twitter has a really high click-through rate and it smells like social media. Social media begs for a better understanding of influence and the different roles that strong ties and weak ties play in decision-making. Most of the research tells us that strong ties - people I know and trust - have stronger influence on behavior. Weak ties are better at getting us new ideas. Celebrities? Matthew Creamer at AdAge puts it this way:
"It's hard to imagine that Justin Bieber, with his 6.4 million followers, is driving much behavior other than getting people to talk about Justin Bieber, frenetically retweet him, and possibly buy a record. Is that influence?"
Whether paid tweets come from celebrities or from regular folks, I would argue that this type of use of social media will weaken its overall value to us as consumers and as marketers. People will become confused and perhaps resentful at the unqualified recommendations that start filling their social media dashboards. They may not be so blase about learning that their favorite celebrity has rented out their personal stream to some marketer who works hard to get the 140 character cadence of the celeb just right.
I was pretty surprised that that BusinessWeek article documented the practice of paid tweets pretty matter-of-factly even revealing that the promotional messages are written and sent by copywriters not the celebs, themselves. That may be obvious to you and I but why else would those copywriters try so hard to speak like the celebs if not to fool people. In the case of ad.ly, they do label the tweets with (ad) and in doing so 'disclose'. (see WOMMA's Disclosure Guidelines) There is no clear sense in the examples they cited as to whether the celebrities have tried the products, though.
‘PayWithATweet’ does not automatically disclose. That means that a user will send out a tweet promoting a product without revealing they were compensated. Their model seems to be based upon sending a tweet then receiving product/compensation which implies that the user has not used the product before promoting or endorsing it. That may be against many countries consumer protection guidelines. Using such a service could put brands at risk.
As governing members of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, we are keenly aware of the dangers of the practice of any type of pay per post model where full disclosure to the end consumer is not enforced. In fact, in the US, our consumer protection laws from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), aim to enforce full disclosure of any ‘material connection’ like receiving product, services or cash.
Are paid tweets a good tactic for some brands? Based upon short term measures like retweets and click-throughs, they may serve a purpose. In the long term, I doubt they will do much but weaken the overall value of social media which relies on trust first not reach. As it stands today, it certainly isn't word of mouth.
(Here's a related article from BNET on one man's view of the value of paid tweets)