Elon Musk’s shadow looms over Twitter ad announcements

Twitter has been quietly building its ad capabilities through partnerships with broadcasters and the introduction of new video formats. After the news Elon Musk has advanced $44bn to buy the platform outright, however, the social media platform has rapidly announced a new suite of features to calm jittery advertisers.

Prior to this year’s Digital Content NewFronts, Twitter sought to cool brand agitation about the potential Musk takeover. It has been noted many times that Musk’s supposed focus on ‘free speech’ on the platform would most likely undo much of the work Twitter has done to make its feed a safe space for advertisers.

The Financial Times received a leaked email from Twitter to advertisers that noted how no matter how toxic the newsfeed might become, any advertising content would remain ‘separate’. It is an attempt by the platform to protect its $4.5bn a year advertising business, but advertiser concerns remain given that anything promised by Twitter now could be ripped up by Musk’s mooted changes in the near future.

The central pitch at Twitter’s NewFronts presentation was for its Twitter Amplify feature. The tool allows advertisers to purchase ad space to run alongside audio and video content from its content partners, which it has sought to expand over the past two years.

Robin Wheeler, the vice-president of US client services at Twitter, said: “At the heart of advertising is a desire to not just reach consumers but to connect with them around something they care about. Twitter Amplify helps brands get there.

“When advertisers tap into Twitter’s premium video content, they are aligned with the topics that our uniquely engaged audience is already obsessing over – premium, brand-safe content that serves diverse communities is more important than ever today. We’re grateful to find new ways to expand this inventory on Twitter, giving our advertisers and marketers a place to drive incremental reach and results.”

To that end, Twitter is partnering with NBCUniversal as the first social platform to test its cross-platform measurement tool iSpot. Cross-platform measurement is seen as a must-have for advertisers over the next few years; Twitter’s affirmation of its commitment to the tool is another way it sought to reassure advertisers.

Content concerns

To bolster that content-led advertising approach, Twitter also reaffirmed its commitment to partnerships. It cited a deal with Condé Nast for live coverage around events like the Met Gala, the Vanity Fair Oscar party and the Pitchfork Music Festival. It also said it will also include other content from magazine partners including Wired, Bon Appetit and The New Yorker. Further monetization options around its Twitter Spaces audio feature were said to be incoming.

It also announced that its six-year-long partnership with the WNBA would be continuing and expanding: “The 2022 season marks the sixth year of the partnership and will include a slate of 12 live games. For the first time ever, the WNBA will also regularly host Spaces throughout the season, as well as during WNBA tentpole events and the offseason. Among other content elements like polls, player interviews and moments, new content franchises will give fans closer access to the league and broader WNBA community.”

Additionally, Twitter is partnering with Revolt to bring content across “music, lifestyle, urban entertainment, sports and social justice to the timeline”, in addition to a continuation of “the always-on coverage of issues happening in Black communities”. Beyond that, Twitter is also partnering with E! News for lifestyle and entertainment content and Essence.

Despite the raft of announcements – many of which were loud reiterations of previous news – the uncertainty around advertising on Twitter remains as long as Musk’s shadow looms over the platform’s future.

While those content partnerships and new formats would normally be a draw, the potential incoming toxicity of the platform presents advertisers with a dilemma. Only today Reach noted that brand reticence to appear alongside controversial topics like the war in Ukraine was a major factor in advertising revenue falling 21%: advertisers have become habituated to the option not to buy alongside toxic content. That makes Musk’s ‘free speech absolutist’ approach to content moderation on Twitter a direct challenge to Twitter’s advertising potential.

Social media consultant Matt Navarra said: “Twitter has launched a significant number of privacy and safety controls for users in recent years. The platform has also built out more comprehensive content moderation policies to tackle growing concerns about the spread of misinformation and online harassment. Elon says he’s a free speech absolutist. It’s only a matter of time before this clash of ideologies and visions for the platform becomes problematic and boils over.”

Advertiser jitters are unlikely to be calmed by new content announcements or cross-platform measurement options. While those options would normally be welcomed, the reality is that advertisers are still buying audiences and Musk’s proposed changes to Twitter could radically up-end the audience and user-generated content that makes up Twitter’s core appeal to brands.