Twitter Drafting – Marketing in the Tweetstream

Racing fans – cars or bicycles – are familiar with the concept of drafting – travelling close behind another vehicle to reduce wind resistance. The concept is sometimes applied to marketing by savvy practitioners who use the spend of others to multiply their own impact in public consciousness. In recent months, I’ve noticed a growing use of twitter by companies – including research firms – to exploit the new social channel this way.

It’s not new. Back in the days when Comdex was the biggest, most interesting show in IT, one could sometimes find the most intriguing offerings, especially from small firms with correspondingly small budgets, in hotel rooms nearby. Rather than paying the sizable fees required to participate officially, these nimble players bypassed the show entirely and found ways to reach attendees and draw them to parties, chili cook offs, etc. to get their message across.

The age of twitter, and especially hashtags, has created a new opportunity. If you don’t know what a hashtag is, they are words preceded by the # sign, a convention that allows an event – like #IBMPulse or #OracleOpenWorld – to sustain what is known as a tweetstream of messages the community interested in the event can follow. (Hashtags are used for other topics too, but that’s not relevant here.)

How does the crafty practitioner use hashtags to get an extra kick for his or her message? By putting out their own tweets and using someone else’s hashtag. Examples: tweeting about your competing product during a vendor show, or in a tweetstream that has sprung up around an event like a product intro or news story.

Analysts can jump into a tweetstream to promote their own work inside the stream around a vendor’s show. I’ve done that myself – it’s a great way to find new followers.

Some have gone further still – lately I’ve seen twitter-savvy analysts like Ray Wang promote their firm’s work even inside a competitor firm’s event tweetstream.  It’s a great way to find the right audience at the right time, and another powerful example of how twitter and other social media challenge existing business models.

Update: in the day following this post, I observed two more instances at the Gartner MDM event I was attending. Another independent analyst used the hashtag to add commentary – on the mix of attendees of the event, which he was not present for. And a vendor, not sponsoring, retweeted something I said, adding a link to their own website. What’s your opinion of these tactics? Leave your comments below – I hope to have a lively discussion. 

About Merv Adrian
Gartner Research VP, technology analyst and consultant, 30 years of industry experience, covering software mostly, hardware sometimes.

21 Responses to Twitter Drafting – Marketing in the Tweetstream

  1. Tom Raftery says:

    Merv,

    what you are describing here sounds dangerously close to spamming – you need to be very careful as it is a fine line and using hashtags inappropriately could just as easily blow up in your face.

    Not that you or Ray have done this – I’m concerned though that people reading this might get the wrong idea.

  2. Merv Adrian says:

    Tom, you’re absolutely right – it’s easy to abuse it, just as you can with spam, or bulk paper mail. And the “draftee” who you’re piggybacking on may not like it much. So my point was to document the trend, and its effectiveness – not necessarily to endorse it. Over here in the UK where I am today, I suspect they would say Ray is “cheeky” – or worse – for promoting his stuff in a artner tweetstream.

  3. Merv,

    I believe that these type of tactics produce a short term gain for the offenders, but I can see the usefulness IF the opportunist is say an affiliate of the sponsor/partner of the tweetstream trying to promote the stream AND their “official” relationship.

    The pretenders will be found out and will have to keep looking for new customers as a former employer of mine would do, as in their eyes new conquest was better than customer satisfaction …..

    Of course the high road in Marketing, Coke and McDonald’s , will never mention competition or do a “me too” campaign……

  4. Merv Adrian says:

    Good comments, Scott. It’s not always obvious, so I’m not sure hijackers will always be “found out.” And it may not matter to people who follow links how they got there if what they find is interesting. Like many “opening” efforts, putting your message out there on twitter exposes you to unanticipated outcomes. Savvy marketers will monitor the twittersphere. What will they do about behavior they don’t like? Stay tuned…

  5. Alan Berkson says:

    Merv,
    The more things change, the more they stay the same. How many people/companies attend conferences to push their own wares? This is really no different. In either case there is a fine line between adding to the conversation and alienating your potential customers. In some ways social media tools like Twitter are raising the bar, challenging marketers to not just sell but provide additional value within their message.

  6. Merv Adrian says:

    Alan, spot on. And the fine line is even finer in cyberspace.

  7. Neil Raden says:

    Merv,

    The person who sets the hashtag doesn’t own it. Twitter is free and is not moderated (I don’t think, or if it were, I imagine some of my tweets would vanish). If someone wants to get noticed in a tweetstream, that’s life, I suspect what will happen, though, is that crowdsense may grow to find this offensive (or not) and drafters will be shunned.

    -NR

  8. Erica Driver says:

    Merv,

    At first I was thinking, “Well, it’s not that different from someone buying competitors’ names and keywords for search engine ads.” But it can be really annoying if not done with care. 

    The line is pretty clear. When the person’s tweets add value and contribute to the conversation–even if they are a competitor–there’s nothing wrong with it. 

    But if valueless “me! look at me!” tweets pop up in competitors’ tweetstreams, they are spam and at best worthy of being ignored. Maybe even unfollowed, if persistent. 

    My two cents. :)

    Erica Driver, QlikTech

  9. Merv Adrian says:

    Neil – yes indeed. We know who they are once we have been watching for a while. And people will draw their own conclusions.
    Now, if I were curating, your tweets would be under a microscope….

  10. Merv Adrian says:

    Thanks, Erica. Agree that value add ought to be welcome anytime. That is the perilous promise of the medium for exclusionary thinkers.

  11. #mysqlconf 2011 attendees join us at the community dinner for chili cook offs monday evening april 11 at Pedro’s http://tinyurl.com/6y65vov

  12. mark madsen says:

    Each of the new communication mechanisms goes through the same evolution. First people it for its intended purpose, then people misuse it, then the arms race continues until some equilibrium is reached via countermeasures or law, or it’s abandoned as hopeless.

    Telemarketing appeared, created a bad rep for companies, went away, came back with robodialers and IVR, got legislated and is now the realm of bottom feeders (scammers, political campaigns, debt collectors).

    Faxes led to fax regulations. Email led to spam laws and the same thing as telemarketing, except the laws are weaker and the code infrastructure means laws are mostly unenforceable. Message boards leading to blogs and comment streams leading to comment spam leading to moderation.

    The public social sites and twitter do have countermeasures like blocking, spam reporting, automated detection. Hashtag drafting would be one thing that might be unblockable and led to lack of use of hashtags or moderated public streams.

    It’s irritating, but in the end, inevitable as people first use technology, then repurpose it to meet their own goals. Like dumping reports from a BI tool into Excel :-)

  13. mark madsen says:

    Roland, your sense of ironic comment is as sharp as always.

  14. Merv – Great “to the point” post. Personally, I think that this type of drafting (in cyberspace or in real life) can be summed in three different levels. From my perspective, worst to best:

    3) Not attending an event, tweeting about the event and adding your own
    advertising spin (not acceptable),

    2) Attending an event, tweeting about the event and adding your perspectives
    (acceptable, but be careful about crossing the line of shameless self-promotion), and

    1) Attending and participating (even in a small way) in the event, and leveraging it
    to your advantage (you are entitled to and you’d be a fool not to).

    Just my 2 cents (or three points) for your consideration…

  15. Curt Monaah says:

    Merv,

    A Twitter hashtag stream is a conversation held in a public place, each of whose participants uses a megaphone, but in which they don’t necessarily drown out other people who are talking/shouting at the same time.

    As long as you’re saying things that the listeners/readers are interested in, I fail to see the problem.

    (Obviously, if you say things that are nonsense or dishonest or simply deceptive as to topic, any tactic you use to get attention would be inappropriate.)

  16. Merv Adrian says:

    Perfect, Roland. Thanks for the smile.

  17. Merv Adrian says:

    Good parallels, Mark. The line is always moving, and people draw their own conclusions from what they see. The agility of early twitter drafters won’t stay unusual for long.

  18. Merv Adrian says:

    Like the model, Fred. Of course, “unacceptable” is as drafter does. Just because we may not like it doesn’t mean it won’t work. Junk mail persists for a reason, too.

  19. Merv Adrian says:

    Curt, your point about not drowning out others is important. So far we’re not talking about floods of drafted messages that obscure the “real” ones from those who originate, and sometimes pay for, the event being drafted. It’s no more than a nuisance, unless you like the content, as you point out. And as I said in the piece, it’s effective and smart to leverage the opportunity.

  20. Merv Adrian says:

    An update – of late (October 2011) I’m seeing a new and more annoying behavior – the use of Promoted tweets – persistent ones that appear and stay at the top of the column in clients like Tweetdeck until you mark them as read and explicitly delete. I consider these a curse – or at least that’s what I do when I see them. Most recent egregious offender has been salesforce.com, whose promoted tweets littered the landscape throughout Oracle Open World. It’s stopped being cute, feisty or amusing.

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