Advertising on Twitter doesn't cost $100,000

The digital marketing world experienced a collective jaw-dropping moment when the Wall Street Journal — and many major blogs and all sorts of re-reporters, retweeters and the like — reported that Twitter’s Promoted Tweets advertising option was being sold to advertisers for “upwards of $100,000.”

The shock is warranted, but I’m pretty sure someone has some facts wrong — or is at least a bit confused about the terminology.

This discussion requires clarity, so I’m going to need to start this one with some definitions.

First, there’s this thing the folks who run Twitter call Promoted Tweets. It’s a regular Twitter message, sent from the advertiser’s account, that’s been “promoted” to the status of an advertisement appearing atop all of the other results for relevant searches on twitter.com. Here’s an example (I added the arrow, but that yellow box saying “Promoted by Doc Pemberton” actually appears on the page, indicating its status as an ad):

Promoted Tweets are a great way to inject yourself into a conversation, but they only work well if it’s done tastefully. How frequently a Promoted Tweet appears depends on the number of advertisers competing for visibility alongside those keywords and how much an advertiser is willing to spend. The spend is based on either cost-per-thousand impressions or cost-per-engagement (a click on a link within the tweet, a retweet of that message, a reply to that message, or a new follower gained directly from that message).

Then there’s this other tactic the folks at Twitter call Promoted Trends. In this case, an advertiser pays to have the topic of its choice appear at the bottom of Twitter’s list of naturally occurring trending topics. See what I mean (again, I added only the red arrow)?

Whereas Promoted Tweets allow advertisers to gain significant visibility within a specific conversation on Twitter, Promoted Trends essentially allow advertisers to create a highly visible discussion on Twitter. (I can only imagine that every Promoted Trend is supported by at least one Promoted Tweet that resides atop the discussion.)

When an advertiser is running a Promoted Tweets campaign, paying for impressions or interactions, they’re bidding — Google AdWords-style — for visibility, paying as little as possible while still gaining the desired exposure. They’re likely paying dimes or maybe dollars per thousand impressions or per interaction, and they have complete control over how much they spend per day and per campaign.

If an advertiser is paying “upwards of $100,000″ with this approach, he or she is getting an outrageous amount of exposure. In my experimenting with Promoted Tweets on behalf of a client, I can safely say we couldn’t even find ways to spend $100,000 at this point. We’re seeing tremendous returns — loads of impressions and clicks, and a far higher engagement rate than most Web ads — but there’s neither enough competition (the program is only open to select brands) nor search traffic to rack up costs that quickly.

I have no direct experience with Promoted Trends, though I’ve heard reports they sell for several thousands of dollars — and these aren’t purchased in cost-per increments like Promoted Tweets. You pay a load of money upfront to be displayed in that prime real estate on the Twitter.com sidebar. It makes more sense to this somewhat well-informed observer that a Promoted Tweet could, in some cases, if the price is allowed to fluctuate based on demand and other factors, cost “upwards of $100,000″ at times. That still feels very high, but it could perhaps include the cost associated with related Promoted Tweets.

The bottom line: While I suppose some advertisers executing massive, long-running Promoted Tweets campaigns could perhaps end up spending six figures, don’t think you need the bankroll of a Fortune 100 company to get into the game. At this point, your only hurdle is Twitter’s reluctance to open this up to more brands.

Twitter has been rather tight-lipped about its advertising options, especially the costs associated with using them. The company seems to only discuss those matters with the digital marketers within the brands who’ve been lucky enough to experiment with the program in its early stages. But by not weighing in to clarify this matter (please, correct me if I’m missing something), Twitter is potentially turning off future advertisers who will write off these promotional opportunities as too little bang for too much buck.