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Twitter - the latest cookie monster

Twitter’s move to cookie-based ad targeting allows businesses to reconnect with existing customers via the micro-blogging platform. But will the real power come from combining it with programmatic trading?

With Twitter widely expected to float in 2014, the announcement that it will begin serving individually targeted ‘cookie-based’ ads comes as little surprise. It is a tack already taken by some of the big guns, namely Facebook and Google, and Twitter had little choice but to follow suit.


The initiative, being launched in the US initially, is expected to raise advertising rates and revenues for the company, with EMarketer predicting ad revenues of $1billion in 2014 – up from $583 million this year. The news comes in the wake of Twitter’s introduction of an ads API and an interactive ads dashboard, both measures designed to give advertisers more control. Kevin Weil, Twitter’s senior director of product for revenue, insists that the latest move will mean “users won’t see more ads on Twitter but they may see better ones.”


Of course, the move initially added fuel to the privacy debate, although Twitter clearly anticipated this response, making it easy for users to opt out of its tracking with one click (compared to Facebook’s more complex ‘multiple click’ opt out), and ensuring that users who activate the Do Not Track feature on their browser are not tracked. The site is also linking to each advertiser’s ‘cookie opt out’ page, to cover all bases. Having received praise from privacy campaigners for its belt and braces approach, the focus has shifted to what Twitter’s new initiative actually means…


In practice the launch will see advertisers target users with Promoted Tweets based on the user’s email address (which is supplied as part of their Twitter account information) and browser history, using browser cookies to track their online movements. Weil has explained that advertisers will share scrambled, unreadable email addresses or browser-related information which will then be matched with Twitter users’ accounts in order to deliver targeted messaging.  Essentially, it allows businesses to reconnect with existing customers via the micro-blogging platform.


Perhaps one of the biggest opportunities Twitter’s move presents lies not in the use of browsing history to target users, but in the use of email addresses.  When people give their email address to a company it is often a strong indicator of purchasing intent, suggesting that when that company presents an offer or product to them in the form of a Promoted Tweet they are likely to respond.
Twitter’s move could offer numerous opportunities for brands to amplify their email marketing – for example, serving Promoted Tweets after a marketing email is sent to the same recipient, in order to maximise impact; retargeting email addresses that haven’t completed specific actions in an email; and turning email subscribers into brand followers.  It also presents an opportunity to target inactive email addresses via a different channel.


The effectiveness of such an approach looks promising. In September 2012 Facebook launched its Custom Audience Ads which similarly target people based on their email address or phone number. Three weeks after this was launched the Washington Post’s ad arm, SocialCode, reported that one Custom Audience campaign delivered a 15% lower cost per fan, while another brand received three times as many engagements per post as standard ads, and attracted twice as many ‘viral engagements’, such as likes, shares and comments.


That said, Facebook’s Custom Audience Ads have not proved as effective – yet – as its Facebook Exchange, which uses programmatic buying to allow advertisers to retarget users with Facebook ads based on their wider browsing behaviour.  The exchange means advertisers can target a particular ad to a particular user in real time – for example, serving a Facebook ad to a shopper who has placed an item in a basket but left the site without completing the purchase. Data released several months after Facebook Exchange launched showed that its ads earned businesses up to 16 times what they spend.


Perhaps the answer for Twitter lies in combining both capabilities. As Dominic Trigg, managing director Europe at programmatic media buying platform RocketFuel comments, the real winners with Twitter’s cookie-based ads will be “those who can combine the intelligent use of prospecting and retargeting to identify which types of audiences are the most likely to respond.”  In short, recognising which data points are driving conversations on Twitter in order to identify other key prospects.  As Trigg suggests, the most effective way of doing this is through programmatic buying, as demonstrated by Facebook Exchange.  


Twitter’s latest move certainly offers opportunities for marketers, but are there more tricks it can borrow from Facebook to really up the ante? Watch this space.

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