When Did Twitter Grow Up?

Answer: Now. Marketing Has Become an In-the-Moment Game, Thanks to One Company

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As a cultural force, Twitter has logged many defining moments. But as an ad platform and marketing tool, Twitter's coming-of-age appears to be happening now.

That news stories like the hacking of the Jeep and Burger King Twitter accounts generated so much heat last week tells you how much brands have made Twitter part of their marketing infrastructure.

But those incidents don't begin to describe what's really happening to marketing in the age of Twitter. Slowly, but in plain sight, Twitter has opened a marketing window that didn't exist before, a window that allows marketers -- or anyone -- to exploit, in real time, moments both expected and completely unplanned.

Like search, this new frontier didn't exist before. Also like search, one company owns it, and that's Twitter. While brands have been dabbling in it for years, they're quickly moving from hobby to pro status. Marketers have even defined it with an acronym--RTM, or real-time marketing--which can lead to questions like, "So, what's your RTM budget?"

The long-awaited release of Twitter's ads application programming interface will accelerate this as marketers can automate their Twitter campaigns and compare the results to everything they already do in social, search and traditional display.

The shift to real-time marketing was on full display during the Super Bowl and last night during the Oscars, when brands like Pepsi, Samsung and Oreo had newsroom-like war rooms set up to interact with their audiences but also to react to the unexpected. During the Super Bowl, that moment came in the form of a blackout at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which created the opportunity for Oreo's "dunk in the dark" and PBS's reminder that "Downton Abbey" was just a flip of the dial away.

So much brand effort was poured into Twitter that night that it's easy to forget it was just three years ago when Audi slapped the first hashtag on a Super Bowl spot. This year, more than half of all ads that aired during the Super Bowl had a hashtag attached, as marketers sought to create a ripple of tweets in their wake.

To get a sense of how mainstream Twitter has become, consider that the AARP had a Twitter strategy for the Grammys. "The majority of people on Twitter are working adults aged 35 to 49," said Tammy Gordon, the AARP's director of social communications. "This is not a teenage application; it's something adults use." The AARP targeted Twitter ads against tweets about 50-plus performers, such as Elton John and Prince, while they were onstage.

During the State of the Union, the AARP had two strategies, for the expected and unexpected. The president wasn't expected to spend much time talking about Social Security -- a core AARP issue -- so the organization's plan was to extend that moment on Twitter by promoting a link to its retirement calculator. Marketers bid up the value of keywords like "SOTU" and "Obama" during the State of the Union; Ms. Gordon initially found herself bidding against the NRA for "SOTU" but then shifted to "Biden," a cheaper keyword but still subject of much conversation.

As is wont to occur during live events, there was a moment of serendipity: President Obama singled out 102-year-old attendee Desiline Victor for waiting three hours to vote. The AARP quickly bought her name.

Marketers have long sought to attach themselves to context. In the pre-Twitter era, "you bought adjacencies next to news stories or, say, the style section during Fashion Week," said Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus. Real-time advertising meant buying Google search terms, prodding bloggers or maybe some well-targeted online display ads.

But, as Twitter Revenue Chief Adam Bain put it, "Marketing has evolved to a series of "now moments,' and we are the platform that can deliver that moment."

All of this bodes well for Twitter's ad business, but Twitter won't become an ad behemoth just by leveraging big TV moments. Mr. Bain said Twitter is becoming less reliant on events as marketers move toward always-on campaigns. Because promoted tweets target a given search keyword or geography, or any number of other factors, only Mr. Bain and Twitter itself knows how many there are. It's safe to assume they spike during big TV events, where marketers like to spend, but they're also most visible when lots of people are searching and watching the same thing.

Twitter still has just four revenue streams: promoted accounts and trends, which now run as much as $200,000 a day; promoted tweets; and its data fire hose, licensed by third parties. EMarketer estimates Twitter will earn $545 million from advertising (half from mobile) in 2013, but may soon raise that estimate.

As marketers get more serious about their real-time strategies, they'll get more serious about determining whether all the tweets, follows and retweets yield some kind of measurable result. Whether Twitter gets to a billion in revenue could depend on what they find

"We are in the land-grab stage right now -- we are still going to move to the results phase," Deep Focus's Mr. Schafer said. "It's not just enough to publish something and pat yourself on the back about it."

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