Fail WhaleTwitter has come a long way since the days of the Fail Whale.  It’s more than a garage start-up, it’s like a legitimate, bona fide business, with a real revenue model.

Twitter turned on “Promoted Tweets” and “Promoted Accounts” last year and have been putting those options in front of potential advertisers with more frequency of late.  It gets better for marketers.  Late last week, Twitter announced “gender-targeting” for advertisers.  That’s a strange option, it would seem, as Twitter does not ask for the user’s gender as Facebook does.  Here’s how Twitter explains it.

“We’re able to understand gender by taking public signals users offer on Twitter, such as user profile names or the accounts she or he follows. We have strong confidence in this approach.”

They claim this method is 90% accurate and that should be good enough for marketers to pull the trigger on gender-specific promotions.  I’m expecting AARP promoted tweets to my account.  Surely they’ll also start age-targeting me as I tweet next summer that I’m breaking into my 40s. 🙂

But that’s not a bad thing (the targeted tweets, that is).  Relevant promoted accounts are better than getting hammered with irrelevant follows and a spam-filled private message inbox.  What do those things have to do with one another?  I’ll explain.

The Auto-Follow Conundrum

Before the dawn of Twitter advertising, how did you start getting followers?  You had to start tweeting and following a few people.  When you follow people, they tend to look at your account and follow you back, if they find you relevant.  The problem is that most of us get followed by a bunch of accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers who are just after numbers.  They don’t offer anything we want to see.  If we don’t follow back, they unfollow us.  It’s annoying.

Twitter has rules about this, but they have been, up til now, very loosely enforced.  Twitter calls it “aggressive following” or “follow churn”.

“We monitor all accounts for aggressive following and follow churn (repeatedly following and un-following large numbers of other users). You can read more about these below, but if you don’t follow or un-follow hundreds of users in a single day, and you aren’t using automated methods of following users, you should be fine.”

No problem if you are an individual user who is just hanging out with friends on Twitter.  But Twitter would never make a dime on individuals hanging out.  For all of their newness as a communication vehicle, their revenue model is as old-fashioned as it comes–advertising.  They need businesses to get off their wallets and spend money to reach a bunch of folks in a hurry.

What surfaced in the pre-ad days of Twitter was unauthorized “automated methods of following users” and some individuals and brands used these automated methods to their advantage.  It could be argued, and I certainly would, that these auto-follow softwares did Twitter some good.  I actually used one to build a couple of twitter accounts to several thousand very relevant and very happy followers.  But the very same auto-follow methods were used in bad ways as well.  They were used indiscriminantly and brought very little value to the Twitter experience.

A Difference In Execution

I would argue that there is a big difference in using auto-follow techniques that are very targeted toward specific locations, interests, etc. and following any and everybody just to get your follower count artificially high.  These are the very same type of targeting techniques that Twitter now uses in their advertising system such as “gender-targeting”.  I used geo-targeting combined with stated interests in tweets and had a very high follow ratio and a relatively low churn count.  There are a lot of Twitter users out there who found the accounts and tweets I used auto-follow on very interesting.

When Twitter launched their new advertising vehicles, I killed the auto-follow.  I knew that I would soon have a more refined method of gaining lots of new followers on brand accounts that needed to get big numbers fast.  And I knew that Twitter would simultaneously start cracking down on auto-followers much more than they have in the past.  They have a very good reason to now.

By shutting the auto-followers down, they force the folks who have used them to use the now-legal method of advertising to reach a bunch of users.  And they’ll have money in the coffers to field a team of people to police the system.  It will happen.

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Hitting Critical Mass

The key for brand marketers is the ability to get to Critical Mass.  I started a Facebook Page called Blue Ridge Parkway Daily and used Facebook advertising to reach 20,000 fans in a very short period of time.  20,000 was Critical Mass.  Brands often need a bump in this manner to get to Critical Mass and keep rolling organically.  We’re now at over 32,000 users and have grown the account by 12,000 after the advertising stopped.  The page is growing rapidly with likes and shares and I’m not spending a dime on advertising.  Twitter now has the tools in place to enable brands to do this same thing.

The result will be a better and better experience on Twitter as the irrelevant follows and tweets taper off.  The more refined the tools get for marketers, the better the experience gets for everybody.  The best kind of marketing is the kind that doesn’t seem like marketing and the more fine-tuned those marketing channels get, the more interacting with brands will seem like chatting with friends.

Good job, Twitter.  By being a real business, and making real money, you’re making a much better product.