Twitter: A live megaphone for lobbying groups, companies

Frank Franklin II/AP - As seen in numerous live television events, from the Super Bowl to the Presidential Debates, national conversations have been born, spread, and crushed on Twitter.

On television, President Obama spent a commercial-free hour delivering his State of the Union speech. But on Twitter, the nation’s biggest lobbying groups and corporations found a megaphone to place ad money and promote their views.

The National Rifle Association, AARP, Chevron and Microsoft bid for top placement of 140-character tweets aimed at spreading their policy and political positions and marketing their products.

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Ahead of the event and during it, they competed in Twitter’s behind-the-scenes advertising auction that gave prominent display to winners who wanted to get their tweets in front of the legions of users who were searching for information related to Obama’s speech Tuesday night.

The NRA’s Institute for Legislative Affairs won the most coveted keyword — “#SOTU” — so that people who searched for that term saw the gun group’s “sponsored tweet” pop up at the top of their personal feeds: “@BarackObama gives good speeches, but how would his gun policies actually work? Don’t be fooled by #SOTU.”

AARP nabbed “#POTUS” and “#JOBS,” and users looking for those words saw their message to protect retirees: “Keep your word, Mr. President. Protect seniors. No Social Security cuts!”

Microsoft was fast on its feet to promote its search engine, Bing, by winning the search phrase “deserve a vote,” which Obama repeated several times in a plea for gun legislation.

The shift in advertising to Twitter illustrates the company’s evolution from disorganized online soap box for global dissidents and celebrities into a media powerhouse that is elbowing its way onto Madison Avenue and influencing top thought leaders in the nation’s capital.

In just the past couple of years, Twitter has become an essential companion to live television, including the Super Bowl, presidential debates and the Academy Awards. As the most popular forum for side commentary, the site has drawn advertisers looking to spread their messages, and at much cheaper costs than on TV and in newspapers.

“Twitter is the great leveler. . . . Nothing is more effective than a message that compels response or affirmation,” said Abram Olmstead, a manager for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s digital communications team.

The chamber won several slots to promote its tweets around the keywords “#SOTU” and “Jobs.”

Four of 10 television viewers say they use smartphones and tablets as they watch shows, according to Nielsen. They were commenting on Beyonce’s fashion during the Super Bowl halftime performance and teasing Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for breaking from his Republican response speech for a swig of water.

Advertisers who are able to capture those split-second flows of crowd sentiment can win massive exposure, as Nabisco did with its clever photo of Oreo cookies being dunked in the dark during the Super Bowl temporary blackout earlier this month.

To ensure speedy response, AARP had two people monitoring the speech. One staff member fired off regular tweets in response to the president’s remarks, and the other was bidding by the minute for better placement based on what the president was saying.

About halfway into the speech, AARP bid for the words “Desiline Victor,” the 102-year-old voter mentioned by name to illustrate problems in early voting during the presidential election.

In addition to the promoted spots on user pages, Twitter gave AARP data on how many people were responding to its tweets.

“Not only are these ads cheaper, we have real data on how many people are taking action on these ideas,” said Tammy Gordon, AARP’s director of social marketing.

Twitter is betting more advertising will help it evolve from a quirky private social blogging site to a publicly traded powerhouse.

It hired a former Google political ads sales manager, Peter Greenberger, to lead its operations in the District and work with K Street lobbying groups and politicians to pay for better exposure.

“Twitter has become a fact of marketing life. If you aren’t real time, you are missing marketing opportunities,” Greenberger said.

He has been working with major trade organizations and companies for weeks ahead of the State of the Union address. His staff of three meets with marketing teams at businesses and explains which hashtags and keywords would give their groups the best exposure.

Users on the site Tuesday night sent 1.36 million tweets directly related to the speech, according to the San Francisco-based firm. The firm declined to say how much it raised through its online auction during the State of the Union. It said 24 companies bid for promoted tweets, double the number in the last address.

The Republican response provided an unexpected marketing opportunity. After Rubio grabbed a drink from a small Poland Spring bottle, the water company’s brand began to trend, or become one of the most repeated phrases for Twitter users.

Poland Spring could have jumped into Twitter's auction to turn the event into marketing serendipity, but it didn’t. Instead, Kraft jumped in to sponsor its water flavoring product called Mio Water Enhancer.

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