Twitter Looks to Emulate Google With Keyword Ad Targeting

Social giant continues to roll out more marketing options

The explosion of search advertising in the mid-2000s put keywords on the advertising pedestal, letting brands pinpoint specific, intent-laden words they’d like to target against.

The explosion of search advertising in the mid-2000s put keywords on the advertising pedestal, letting brands pinpoint specific, intent-laden words they’d like to target against. Keyword ads have worked brilliantly, as evidenced by Google's multibillion-dollar advertising business.

Now Twitter, reportedly planning to go public within the next year, wants in on the action.

On Wednesday Twitter announced the ability for advertisers to target Promoted Tweets to specific keywords users may include in a tweet. For example, someone might tweet that they’re hungry and want a burrito. Taco Bell could bid on the words “hungry” and “burrito” to run a Promoted Tweet linking to a coupon code for a free burrito to that user and anyone else whose tweets include those two words. Advertisers can also import keywords they use on other platforms, such as Google's AdWords.

If advertisers want to get even more specific, they can target exact phrases like Taco Bell’s catchphrase “live más.” And instead of having the keyword-targeted Promoted Tweets run in users’ timelines, advertisers can opt for them to appear on the search results page for the designated keywords. Twitter has implemented a negative sentiment filter, so that someone who tweets that they're hungry but hates burritos won't immediately be presented with a Promoted Tweet from Taco Bell, as an example.

“We’re layering in the who and the elements of connection we have on Twitter with the when and the intent people are expressing when they tweet,” said Twitter senior director of product for revenue Kevin Weil. Since Twitter is a real-time platform, the pitch to advertisers is capitalizing on real-time intent. Weil gave the example of someone tweeting about listening to an album from a new band they've discovered that may be on tour nearby. If the band has a Promoted Tweet campaign set up targeting keywords included in the person's tweet as well their geolocation, that Promoted Tweet could be the next one displayed in the person's Twitter timeline. "It's a form of serendipity," he said.

Keyword targeting can be used in addition to Twitter’s existing targeting parameters like geolocation, device and gender, and is available in 15 languages through the Twitter’s ad platform and ad API partners. Through some of the API partners, advertisers can even specify the time of day they'd like their tweet to run, so Taco Bell could corral the lunch crowd, said Weil, noting that "full-on dayparting is not part of the [Twitter Ads center] yet."

Also not yet possible is the ability to blend keyword targeting with the interest targeting Twitter introduced last summer, which aims ads based on the types of things users tweet about or types of Twitter accounts they follow. For now advertisers will choose whether to target based on interests or keywords in order to retain simplicity and ease of use, Weil said, but suggested that may not remain the case in the future. "You can definitely imagine marketers wanting to reach users who are talking about a certain thing and are also interested in a broader category," he said.

Twitter tested the new capability with what it described as “a small group of advertisers and agencies” including Walgreens, Microsoft Japan and Everything Everywhere. A company rep said that those tests found users “more likely to engage with Promoted Tweets using keyword targeting in the timeline than other forms of targeting in the timeline.” Mountable camera maker GoPro tried out keyword targeting with four campaigns and generated nearly 2 million impressions and engagement rates reaching 11 percent.

Over the past year, Twitter has aggressively expanded advertisers’ abilities to pinpoint ads on the platform. Last summer it began allowing advertisers to run Promoted Tweets without first organically posting the tweet. Then it added interest targeting. And earlier this year, the company opened up an ad API so that third-party social ad firms could more easily help brands manage and automate their Twitter campaigns.

Collectively that could have opened up the advertising floodgates, turning Twitter into this decade’s MySpace. However Twitter has kept tight quality controls to make sure the ads don’t aggravate users, even pulling Promoted Tweets that fail to meet undisclosed performance expectations. Same goes with keyword targeting. 

"We’re not showing ads more frequently in timelines, and users can still dismiss Promoted Tweets they don’t find relevant," Twitter's product manager for revenue Nipoon Malhotra wrote in a company blog post announcing the new feature.