Despite a surge in Super Bowl ad dollars, Twitter’s ad rehab is a work in progress

This story is part of Digiday’s annual coverage of the Super Bowl. More from the series →

Advertisers may have shown up to Twitter for the Super Bowl, but don’t expect them to stick around afterward. Tensions are thawing between the social network and its main source of income, but they’ve not subsided completely. It’s going to take more than one high-profile event to repair the rift caused by Elon Musk’s tumultuous reign at Twitter.

Still, it could be a lot worse, given where things were a few months ago. Now, advertisers aren’t so much steering clear of the beleaguered social network as much as they’re wading warily back in.

“We have one of our clients that has returned to Twitter ads with our guidance,” said Molly Lopez, partner at digital agency Hite Digital, without naming the client. “The platform is a good brand-fit for the client and the client’s target audience over-indexes on the platform, plus clicks and impressions are dirt cheap at the moment, so it’s a good investment.”

Big discounts can have that sort of effect. And Twitter’s ad sales executives offered some hefty ones to tempt advertisers back onto the platform. The main offer was free space — Twitter matched ad spending up to $250,000 during the Super Bowl. It might not sound like much compared to the cost of a commercial during the game itself, but these discounts funded a large chunk of the ad dollars that were spent on Twitter over the weekend, given pre-rolls, takeovers and video sponsorships can typically set advertisers back anywhere between $350,000 to $600,000 per day.

With this fire sale of sorts, only a fraction of some of the larger brands’ Super Bowl advertising on Twitter would’ve actually come from their actual ad budget. 

“We have brought the Twitter 1:1 match for the month of February to a number of clients,” said Carrie Tropeano Dino, head of media and communications strategy at Mekanism. “A few clients in the tech and CPG space are using this as an opportunity to restart advertising on Twitter and test the response.” 

The economics of rehabilitation

Advertising on Twitter (at least for now) is a low stakes investment for marketers. Nevertheless, many of them still aren’t completely sold on spending their ad dollars there again. They know that audiences haven’t left the platform in droves since Musk threw it in disarray — quite the opposite in fact. But they worry their ads are going to be put in danger, now that the social network is overseen by a self-declared “free-speech absolutist.”

As Tropeano Dino explained:” Some of our more conservative clients have opted not to take advantage of the offer because there are still concerns over brand safety and the impact resuming advertising on the platform could have on their corporate reputation.”

To be fair, Twitter has tried to allay some of those worries in recent weeks with new checks and balances. But so far, they don’t seem to have worked. Advertisers are interested in Twitter but are a long way from giving it their full attention. 

“Elon’s not dumb, and the platform will be better than it was,” said a senior investment exec at a media agency who spoke to Digiday anonymously to protect their working relationship with Twitter. From this exec’s perspective, there’s been some stabilization around the ads business in recent weeks, especially since Musk has taken a step back from those efforts, they said. “Once it’s brand safe again, it’ll do just fine,” they added.

Other marketers are on board with that sentiment.

“There’s still a way to go in terms of Twitter’s rehabilitation among advertisers,” said Ryan Detert, CEO of digital marketing agency Influential, which is working with advertisers mulling the same thing. “They will be watching other big events, whether they’re advertising around them or on the sidelines, over the coming months like the Oscars to see what ends up trending around those moments. They will want to know whether areas of concerns like hate speech and political views bleed into the wider conversation around those moments.”

Don’t expect these views to abate anytime soon.

Twitter’s ad sales boss Chris Riedy can only do so much on the limited resources he has available. For now, Twitter’s rehabilitation among advertisers starts and ends with major discounts to minimum costs, and larger ad credit offerings for those who commit dollars to reserved buys. It’s not a pretty way to sell ads, but it is a means to an end for Musk — the end being better cash flows and revenue, not profitability. 

This will change eventually, of course. 

Until then, the message to advertisers from Musk, while not stated explicitly, is implicitly clear: This is the new Twitter. There are opportunities here for advertisers if they play by his new rules. If they don’t, he doesn’t really care. 

“That’s the thing about Musk — he really is a man with nothing to lose, and he’s running Twitter that way,” said Lopez. “He’s committed to seeing his vision for the platform through, with or without the support of major advertisers. Whether you’re for it or against it, at the very least, it’s making for an interesting phenomenon to watch.”

The case for Twitter

Some advertisers are definitely for Twitter. They’ve continued to advertise on the social network despite Musk’s erratic reign to date. 

“If you asked me objectively whether I’ve seen any big changes to Twitter since Elon Musk took over I’d say no,” said Ivonne Kinser, vp of marketing and innovation at Avocados from Mexico. “Yes there’s some content that’s not positive that could be better controlled by the various mechanisms they have there but that was the same before Musk took over. Maybe they’re doing it in different ways but there are still trolls on Twitter.”

This is one advertiser that wasn’t looking for an easy out when Musk took over and arguably blurred the line between hate speech and free speech. Instead, Avocados from Mexico maintained its ad spending on Twitter, which accounts for 20% of its annual digital ad budget. To Kinser, the social network is still the go-to place for high impact activation during these key marketing moments. As she explained, “What we do as a brand is do our best to stay away from those polarizing conversations and focus on our own brand and products.”

One way to steer clear of those more polarizing conversations is to avoid the traditional auction-bought ads on the platform. Some marketers are doing just that, and are instead advertising on vetted publisher content or on high traffic spaces where the risk of a brand safety breach is lower. Granted, it’s more expensive this way, but the discounts make the outlay easier to swallow.

During the Super Bowl, advertisers did just that. Their pre-roll ads got to appear in 75 clips showcasing past Super Bowl moments as well footage from the week leading up to the match and the analysis content for it. Furthermore, marketers were able to get their ads in 10 videos of real-time highlights during the match, which also ran into the day after. 

“While high engagement is expected — I’m usually most impressed by the costs, with 90% better engagement costs than in-feed tactics and up to 20% improvements in CPM, which is highly varied by the region and publisher of course,” said Kaela Green, vp of paid social at Basis Technologies. “That said, the incremental reach and output from lift measurement studies we have run alongside our buys suggest promising, lasting impact when our brands lean into Twitter’s strengths.”

Michael Burgi, Digiday’s senior editor for media buying and planning, contributed to reporting on this story.

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