During the Consumer Electronics Show, the Associated Press's 1.5 million followers will see tweets about Samsung's new products. Some will be organic — Samsung is one of the largest exhibitors at the show, and the AP has reporters there. But two a day will come directly from Samsung, in the form of ads.
The tweets will be labeled as "sponsored," but not in the native manner of Twitter's official sponsored tweets. Instead of using Twitter's ad product, Samsung and the AP struck a deal on their own. It's an under-the-table deal as far as Twitter is concerned, and a type of arrangement that Twitter has been discouraging — and hoping to replace — for years.
It's also a move that, if successful, could turn big Twitter feeds into cash cows, and create a point of tension between the social platform and its users. Twitter, like all of the major social services, is headed for a conflict with power-users who look to monetize their own channels even as the social media companies struggle to find a revenue model. Facebook already prohibits third party advertising on company Pages, for example. The much younger Pinterest does not.
Twitter has already barred some versions of this kind of advertising. In 2010, with the introduction of Sponsored Tweets, Twitter warned that a common type of third party advertising — automated posting of sponsored tweets to a feed — was prohibited:
It is critical that the core experience of real-time introductions and information is protected for the user and with an eye toward long-term success for all advertisers, users and the Twitter ecosystem. For this reason, aside from Promoted Tweets, we will not allow any third party to inject paid tweets into a timeline on any service that leverages the Twitter API.
This is a prohibition on advertising posted via API apps, which is an important distinction: It bans apps that serve as automated ad platforms, or that let people purchase and post sponsored tweets without the direct oversight of the owner of the feed. Twitter later clarified that certain, very limited unofficial ad arrangements were in fact fine:
In cases where these Tweets are paid or otherwise sponsored, any payment arrangements are the responsibility of the user and the sponsoring brand or service. These “sponsored” Tweets are not prohibited, provided they clearly disclose the nature of the sponsorship on Twitter, and do not otherwise violate the Twitter Rules.
The AP's tweets will be hand-posted, and are therefore allowed. Director of AP Media Relations Paul Colford tells BuzzFeed he is "confident in our position," and that "Twitter is pleased" with the arrangement. And indeed, Slate ran an almost identical campaign with Samsung in late 2011:
But this new campaign is notable for two reasons: The AP, whose last yearly financial statement showed losses of $193.3 million, is under pressure to find new revenue streams. And in its own press release, the company implicitly acknowledges that such deeply embedded advertising is new for the organization — and would have been hard to conceive of just a few years earlier — to the point that it has been forced to develop new internal guidelines to accomodate these "new business models."
More striking is that Samsung, one of the most powerful electronics companies on Earth, didn't go with Twitter's official ad product for this campaign, which means Twitter won't see a dime. Seeing as Samsung has also purchased official promoted Tweets in the past, Twitter would be right to see this kind of arrangement as a threat. Samsung's AP ads will also reach people using third-part apps like Tweetbot, which effectively block Twitter's official sponsored tweets.
If the campaign is successful, and other companies follow suit, I wouldn't be surprised to see Twitter crack down on posts like this — or to look for a piece of the action.