Former US president Donald Trump’s social app, Truth Social, launched on the App Store today and quickly topped the free downloads chart. If the audience is there, will advertisers follow?
Trump is testing the adage ‘if you build it they will come’ with his new social media platform Truth Social. After he was unceremoniously banned from Twitter following multiple breaches of its terms and his role in the January 6 Capitol riots, the former US president was denied his primary source of communications with his audience. Now, his own personal social network has launched on the US Apple App Store – albeit in a limited fashion and extremely visibly similar to Twitter. Trump’s team is banking on his fans eagerly snapping up the app.
It follows a limited trial of a small number of users, which was replete with technical issues. Despite the slow start, project lead at the Trump Media & Technology Group (TMTG) Devin Nunes states that the app should be fully ready by the end of March.
It presents advertisers with a number of dilemmas, both technical and moral. At the time of writing, the platform’s website was down with an error – and since there is no web version of the platform, it limits potential audiences to only those in the US on iOS. That also raises the specter of being vulnerable to changes made by Apple, both in terms of the app being deprioritized or buried by Apple in the App Store and the ongoing privacy and ad revenue issues on Apple platforms.
Trump Social is often compared to Parler, a right-wing Twitter-esque social app backed by Rebekah Mercer, a major donor to the Republican Party. It was previously banned from the App Store by Apple for its users disseminating information relating to the Capitol riots.
Apple stated: “In the period since Apple removed the Parler app from the App Store, Apple’s App Review Team has engaged in substantial conversations with Parler in an effort to bring the Parler app into compliance with the guidelines and reinstate it in the App Store.” It is a reminder that, no matter if Truth Social claims to be an open forum for discussion, it is reliant upon Apple for its distribution.
At the time of writing, the number of users who had been placed on a waitlist to join Truth Social exceeded 160,000. That’s a relatively tiny number, particularly considering that social ads rely on targeting capabilities that Truth Social is unlikely to have. That means advertisers will be buying at scale, on a platform that lacks the scale of its competitors. It is also unclear to what extent that audience will be unique, or whether its users will also be replicated across other social platforms.
Media Bounty’s head of client services Charlie Bennett tells The Drum: “From the client side, I’ve seen no interest around those platforms, so it’s a little bit difficult to comment on what they’d do. I can say that, with new social media platforms, there is usually a clear split between brands that wait until the data shows if a platform is a cost-effective way to reach their target audience and those that like to be known for jumping on the exciting new thing.”
Risk aversion and blacklists
A second consideration is that it is unclear what advertising will look like on the platform, and to what extent any ads would make up a proportion of its ‘truthfeed’. Parler chose to avoid traditional ad units in its feed in favor of an ‘influencer’-based strategy. Its chief exec and founder, John Matze, told CNBC: “Our business model is going to be an ad revenue model. The idea of how we’re going to do it isn’t going to be a centralized model for ads, it will be specific around influencers. So advertisers will target influencers and those people with a large reach, rather than us as a platform.”
Advertisers actually spent a long time studiously avoiding Trump-related advertising opportunities through topic blacklists. Along with ‘Brexit’ and ‘politics’, ‘Trump’ was among the most common blacklisted terms for buying digital advertising. It suggests that the vast majority of brands could still choose to avoid association with the controversial figure, even on a platform that is by design sympathetic to audiences that favor Trump.
Paul Greenwood, head of research and insight at We Are Social, said: "When we look at the current landscape of social media, there’s a long-tail of platforms that brands can activate on. There are your (now) traditional major players from Meta, YouTube and Twitter but we’re also seeing eastern influences from the likes of WeChat and Douyin as well as TikTok that regularly make the top 10 of most social media users across the globe.
"So there’s a lot of options for brands out there right now which have demonstrated effectiveness. With Truth Social and Parler, without the creativity effectiveness and broader functionality and formats plus the reputational baggage that comes from Trump, we haven’t had any brands asking to activate on these platforms."
Tamara Littleton is chief executive of social media agency The Social Element. She says: “The short answer is that we are seeing no interest whatsoever from any of the brands we work with in platforms like Truth Social or Parler. For most senior marketers, social is just one part of their wider marketing plan and they simply do not have the time to grapple with untested, potentially toxic platforms without a very clear strategy to back it up.
“What’s more, most marketers – save from some of the more tech-focused or agile brands – are reluctant to use any platform outside the norm: they don’t know if it is effective or brand safe. So many platforms come and go that marketers cannot invest into every single one: think Vine, BBM and more. Many of these came without the additional concerns around being viewed as a platform that backs non-mainstream political views. So for now, and for the foreseeable future, there will be very few brands sending ad money to the likes of these platforms.”
Media Bounty’s head of strategy and planning Polly Roberts elaborates: “We are probably one of the least likely agencies to work with clients that would be interested in appearing on Trump’s platform. Besides, it’s a big risk that most brands would want to avoid – in terms of the figures, but also in terms of environment and brand reputation.”
As of yet, it is unclear whether Truth Social will turn out to be a conducive platform for brands. Even news brands that have profiles on the app appear to be simple RSS feeds set up by the Truth Social team, rather than a genuine effort to join the platform from the newspapers themselves.
When it comes to Truth Social and new social apps in general, the only certainty is uncertainty – and that’s not a good bet for advertisers that have many alternatives already.