Buying online success

Cynthia CloskeyGeneral


Seth Godin looks at retail promotion in the real world and online (“Powerful (and powerless) merchants“) and says that promotion techniques that we have become used to  in offline retail don’t transfer well online.

When we shop in the real world, we take it for granted that end caps and promotions and speed tables and other interactions will not be there because they are in the direct interest of us the shopper, but because they were placed there by the retailer to help generate income. It’s a store, for goodness sake, of course they’re trying to maximize their income. … Online, where stores are more like tools than like stores, this behavior rarely transfers successfully. You bristle when Twitter starts inserting irrelevant tweets in the stream you see, because you didn’t ask for them.

One area online where this isn’t the case is search results. Search for “website design Butler PA” in Google, Bing, or Yahoo and the first results you’ll see on the page are paid results: ads. For many searches, you’re shown more paid results than organic results — that is, results that aren’t ads but are links to pages that are ranked as relevant to your search.

These paid promotions don’t seem to bother most people; in fact, many people I talk to don’t realize that many of the search results they get are ads, because they look so much like the non-paid results.

The reason we dislike promoted tweets but aren’t fazed by paid search results has to do with relevance. The paid search results are just as relevant to your search as the organic results because both lead to the kinds of web pages you’re looking for. In contrast, promoted tweets are intended to be relevant, but they fall short of that goal, so they make us mad.

Here’s what Twitter says about when and to whom promoted tweets are displayed:

  • A Promoted Tweet will appear in a user’s timeline only if the Tweet is likely to be interesting and relevant to that user.
  • Our platform uses a variety of signals to determine which Promoted Tweets are relevant to users, including what a user chooses to follow, how they interact with a Tweet, what they retweet, and more.

The intent is that any promoted tweet you see will be as valuable to you as regular tweets, but for that to happen Twitter needs to do a great job of tuning the algorithm for when and to whom to show promotional content. That’s a tall order, and it’s a task they’ll get better at over time. Even when they do though, there also needs to be great promotional content available to show.

Many promoted tweets feel jarring, but so do many Facebook ads and paid search results on, say, Bing:

Strange search result

As online promotions get better, and as networks and services figure out how to send the right promotions to the right people, promoted content will feel less clunky and more useful to us as online users. Until then, we’re going to have to suffer through a lot of ads we don’t care about.