Image: A Twitter page for Earlybird
Twitter
Twitter's new @Earlybird marketing program offers deals from "select" advertisers to its followers.
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By Wilson Rothman
msnbc.com
updated 7/7/2010 5:34:14 PM ET 2010-07-07T21:34:14
commentary

Last Friday, word got out that Twitter was starting a deal program called @Earlybird, where followers get "exclusive offers from Twitter's select advertising partners." Did it cause an outcry? Were Tweet-heads enraged that their beloved free service was so blatantly cashing in?

Nope. Without any expectation of the types of deals they might be getting wind of, more than 16,000 people have signed up (by this story's press time). Before the week is out, I bet @Earlybird gets 10 times that many followers. Ads? Yes please!

Not long ago, people joked about a future where mobile phones were crammed with ads, and that advertisers would know what we do and where we go, both in life and on the Internet. Blink and that future is here — now. Only in many cases, we're choosing the ads — often to save money in some other way. So, is this ad-riddled existence good or bad?

First, let's get the huge and obvious disclaimer out of the way: Msnbc.com and every other publication I've ever worked for make their money from advertising revenue. My salary comes from ad revenue. But I am a consumer as well as a consumer advocate, so I tend to point out what irks me (and others), despite its link to my personal bottom line. (I should also mention that msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

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A question of relevance
Here's a good way to understand this new digital-era encroachment: Imagine it's 1987. You shoot a video of your kid's gymnastics meet with your over-the-shoulder camcorder, shove the tape into your VHS machine and, before you see your kid doing her ribbon floor routine, you get a pop-up telling you where to buy more blank tapes.

But now that that's what essentially happens, it turns out that not all ads irk us. Even after you rule out that increasingly sweet, high-def form of entertainment that comes from sharing the freshest movie trailers and the funniest Super Bowl ads, and stick to the kinds of ads we're not supposed to like, we're getting surprisingly tolerant. Who among us dives immediately for the $4.99 iPhone app when there's a free — but ad supported — version to try?

When Steve Jobs took the stage in April to show off Apple's mobile advertising platform, iAd, he was not pitching the service to businesses, but to consumers and programmers. And though there were some solid rants lamenting the takeover of screen real estate and the disruption of the phone's sanctity, few could argue that Jobs' example, an interactive "Toy Story" ad that expanded into a multimedia presentation, didn't offer a compelling example of something we'd actually want to check out.

Whether we'll tap on an iAd for Clorox bleach is a different decision entirely, but maybe it's one we'll never have to face.

Google famously developed its ad strategy around the notion of relevance: Ads keyed to searches lose their placement if users don't click on them, so it's up to both the advertiser and the advertisee, and over time the relevance gets pleasingly tight. In Google searches you probably often see that the top search link and the top ad link are one and the same.

Facebook makes more money than God on ads, primarily because they're supposed to be "more personalized to your real interests." And where the site's machine intelligence falters, your own friends will surely pick up the slack. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you obviously don't have as impressive a collection of virtual Coors Light bottlecaps as I do. (Catch the Silver Bullet, baby.)

As we accept more and more ads into our lives, we're getting less and less that annoy us because they lack applicability to our lives. Even the bleach ad knows I'll only put up with it as a tiny icon next to the Cleaning & Home section of my beloved Grocery iQ shopping-list app. It was once a paid app, and now it's free, but the supposed increase in ads isn't apparent. If I want to be inundated with promotions, I can click the "coupons" section, but in truth, I never do.

Having their cake, eating it too
Does it bother me that these apps know where I am, what I'm shopping for? I can't say it does. I can't think of anything I would add to a grocery list that could come back to haunt me, and when I've used ad-supported location-based apps, such as the Garmin Nuvi, I've been more annoyed by the lack of diversity in the advertising. If the system was programmed to suggest ads based on my location, I must never have been more than a few miles from a Days Inn.

What did bother me, though, was that the Garmin had a list price of around $200, and they still saw fit to sell ads. Maybe that covered a price drop, or the cost of the traffic-reporting service, but it still worked me up a bit. Our tolerance for advertising drops fast when we're actually paying for the services. I used to never be bothered by Hulu ads, but now that I pay $10 for Hulu Plus, I can't believe they'd dare!

That's how things have always been in the magazine world: You buy a magazine, and it's full of ads. Same goes for basic cable. But the two-sided strategy seems amplified in the digital realm.

This will be the next great annoyance — paying for stuff that's full of ads. It's already happening little by little, but I hear a lot of chatter from corporate suits and independent pundits alike saying that advertising alone can't support our wholesale transition from print and television to that massive, multifaceted stream of ones and zeros.

In the meantime, this kind of opt-in marketing will be the face of non-evil advertising. Deal hunting, from woot.com to Gizmodo's daily "Dealzmodo" roundups, is already a respected tradition among nerds and hipsters alike. Twitter's @Earlybird may have more in common with traditional advertising than some kind of insiderish deal hookup, but on the face of it, it'll probably feel like this. And if in the end you don't feel especially targeted, you can un-follow and forget about it.

Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman to chat about tech, cooking or really funny ads. Just don't send him any more Coors Light bottlecaps.

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