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Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

Associated Press experiments with a way to make social media pay

The Associated Press has raised some eyebrows, and several questions, as the US news cooperative struck a deal with Samsung to sponsor tweets from the Consumer Electronics Show.

The tweets will clearly be marked as “SPONSORED TWEETS” and, to comply with Twitter commercial guidelines, Samsung won’t be allowed to directly post the updates to AP’s 1.5m followers but must allow AP to post the updates themselves. To help ensure that the sponsored social media content meets AP’s editorial standards, the cooperative has developed “internal guidelines in recent months so that it may build new business models in the new media landscape without compromising its newsroom values and principles,” according to a press release.

In the press release, Lou Ferrara, AP managing editor overseeing social media, said:

We are thrilled to be taking this next step in social media. As an industry, we must be looking for new ways to develop revenues while providing good experiences for advertisers and consumers. At the same time, advertisers and audiences expect AP to do that without compromising its core mission of breaking news.

Balancing commercial imperatives and editorial values

Other online companies such as aggregator MediaGazer and India’s Firstpost often ask readers to support their sponsors via tweets, but the AP-Samsung deal goes further.

This isn’t the first time that Samsung has worked with a media company to sponsor tweets. In 2011, online magazine Slate, owned by the Washington Post, posted sponsored tweets promoting a Samsung laptop.

The tweets are very clearly marked as sponsored, but as the first responses to this tweet shows, not all users are happy with the sponsored tweets with one user saying, “Should I unfollow now, or later?” Adweek highlighted even stronger response from some of AP’s followers, with one follower imploring the news service to “have some journalism ethics and stop with the sponsored tweets nonsense please”.

But Cory Bergman, the general manager for the Twitter headline service Breaking News, asked critics what the difference was between commercials on television and a sponsored tweet.

Apart from the possibility of upsetting followers, the novel use of Twitter for commercial purposes raised ethical questions about mingling editorial and commercial content. The Financial Times said that the AP was juggling “impartial news and Samsung-sponsored” tweets.

Adweek quoted Todd Defren, CEO of PR firm Shift Communications, who said:

This is further evidence of the blurring lines between earned and paid media. The news outlets are crimped for cash, so they’re considering unorthodox revenue approaches. Meanwhile, brands are desperate for attention in a saturated media environment so they’ll pay a premium to gain audience share from a proven property. I’m not opposed to experimentation, but transparency is key.

As for transparency, Bergman responded on Twitter in a discussion about one of the sponsored tweets by saying that “product placement isn’t usually disclosed so openly”.

One key element in making sure that these deals don’t threaten editorial standards and independence is to follow AP’s lead and have a clear policy for such deals. This is one of seven recommendations that Jasper Jackson recently made in an article for The Media Briefing looking at how to safely balance commercial and editorial demands. He also recommends that staff cannot have commercial relationships with the companies that they cover. Jackson’s recommendations come from Howard Rauch, the American Society of Business press Editors’ ethics committee, and Tony Hallett, former CBS Interactive business publishing director and now the director at Collective Content, a content marketing agency.

The AP also followed another of Jackson’s recommendation by clearly flagging sponsored content.

With digital driving ever increasing levels of media competition, Jackson said that editors and publishers need to set and enforce clear guidelines to sales teams to make sure that sales teams comply with the commercial code.

But did it make money?

We don’t know how much money AP netted from the deal, with Reuters reporting that the news cooperative did not release financial details about the sponsorship. However, the AP’s Ferrara told the FT that the deal was “profitable and a good opportunity for us”.

Some questions were also raised as to whether the deal fell foul of Twitter’s terms and conditions, but a Twitter spokesperson told Reuters as long as the tweets are sent individually and manually, rather than by an automated service, the tie-up complies with Twitter’s terms for third-party agreements.

However, as Twitter is trying to increase its own revenue, it could always change these terms in the future, as Twitter has already made several changes to limit third-party services using its platform. paidContent’s Mathew Ingram asked how long Twitter would allow companies to sell their own ads. If campaigns like this are successful, then Ingram says that Twitter will have to changes its terms to protect its own advertising programme or strike revenue-sharing deals with companies that want to replicate the AP-Samsung deal.

Article by Kevin Anderson

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