Everything you’ve been wondering about AP’s sponsored tweets: A Q&A with the people behind them

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Now that we’re more than halfway through the AP’s sponsored tweet experiment, most journalists and consumers seem to have settled into one of two camps: The AP is selling its soul and forsaking its audience, or the AP is doing what it must to survive.

To recap: During CES this week, the newswire’s main Twitter feed is sending out two sponsored tweets per day from Samsung, both of which direct to a website Samsung set up for CES.

News organizations have been posting sponsored tweets for years, but the AP’s entry into the trend has been under particular scrutiny, and reaction has been wildly mixed. Some consumers and journalists have been perturbed or disappointed, others understanding, and some are downright furious.

We caught up with AP managing editor Lou Ferrara, who oversees social media in the newsroom, and Eric Carvin, the AP’s social media editor, and asked about the backlash, how the tweets have affected the account, what the future holds and more. 

Muck Rack: What was the initial response to the sponsored tweets at the beginning of the week, and how has it evolved over the past few days?

Eric Carvin: Initially, the response was mostly surprised or maybe intrigued in some cases. I think people didn’t necessarily expect this. It might also have to do with the fact that AP hasn’t really been working with advertising for very long.

Lou Ferrara: There was some surprise initially, then I think it evolved into something that was I think a little more sophisticated as time went by. There were a lot of people who first thought it broke the rules of Twitter, or was upsetting Twitter, but then they realized it’s actually not making them angry, and it doesn’t break any rules.

Beyond that, some people have really said some very positive things about the importance of finding new revenue models. But overall, I would say mixed. We’ve gotten a pretty wide range of responses.

MR: How did you guys deal with what seemed like, at least for the first two days, an overwhelmingly negative response? Why do you think there was such a strong backlash?

LF: For one thing, we set the record straight when people have things wrong, like whether any rules were being broken. I would estimate that for Monday and Tuesday, 50% of what we dealt with was pointing people to the right information.

Some people had a knee jerk reaction or misinterpreted information or didn’t even read about whether it was allowed. Eric and I, six months ago when we first began this idea, we really looked at the Terms of Service closely and started putting together whether we wanted to do sponsored tweets – starting with, Can we even do it? We really did our homework.

EC: That included thinking internally about whether this would have any negative impact on the journalism we do, and making sure it didn’t. That was crucial. We are doing lots of tweeting from and about CES that has absolutely nothing to do with the sponsored tweets, and none of that is being affected in any way because of the sponsored tweets.

MR: A lot of the initial negative response came with threats of unfollowing. Did you notice a difference in your follower count after the sponsored tweets went out?

EC: We’ve been looking at the numbers, and our following has been increasing an identical rate to what it would normally be increasing, which is about 4,000 a day. Pretty typical.

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MR: Who is actually composing the tweets and sending them out? Is there any direct newsroom involvement?

LF: They’re coming from Samsung, so they’re signing off on them, and they’re getting posted by the business operations of the AP, not by the newsroom. We tried to make that very clear, because we thought it was an important distinction. Just as in a newspaper, newsrooms don’t put the ads on pages themselves. In broadcast, it’s not like NBC News is reviewing every ad that’s appearing, or inserting the ads. It’s similar here. We tried to follow very traditional advertising and newsroom workflows that have been used around the country for years.

EC: The only real newsroom involvement is making sure that this is being done the right way. The people involved in the normal tweeting were aware these tweets were coming, because we didn’t want them to be surprised when a sponsored tweeted showed up the feed they’re managing.

MR: Why did you guys pursue sponsored tweets in the first place?

LF: I think certainly we started it because we think there’s a market there of some sort. We want to see where it goes. But we don’t claim the model we put together is perfect. I think by the end of this week, we will look back and think what we could do better or different, and how we want to proceed and explore that.

[…]

Eric and I started this process six months ago exploring whether we could do it. Really it took about three months to walk through all the issues, technology, workflows, making sure we’re not having any church and state issues, and we want to make sure we’re doing that with all our efforts.

EC: I’m not sure there’s high value in having sponsored tweets every day in all the AP feeds. It may have higher impact around events like CES or Davos or the Super Bowl. Really we just need to find what’s most effective and what works with the advertisers. I think it’s also a question of whether it would be more effective than what we’re doing now if we worked with some of the smaller, more niche accounts.

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MR: Are sponsored tweets something the AP will continue to do?

LF: There’s nothing that we have locked down, but we’ve been talking to a number of different organizations about this. The advertising market and the corporate part of the world seem to be ready for this, to try these things out, and it’s very interesting exploring where it goes, particularly with a strong, reputable brand like the AP. So we’re in those conversations to see what it is that advertisers are interested in doing.

MR: What’s one takeaway from whole experiment so far?

LF: I have an answer that may rub some people the wrong way in the industry. It’s disheartening to me, and we all in the media are grappling for new models, how quickly people negatively react when you try to pursue something new. They make assumptions sometimes instead of figuring out or wondering if, Wow, maybe this is something that could go in the right direction. Eric and I do work for the AP, so our first goal is to do things with the utmost accuracy and transparency and honesty.

EC: Extending from that, I think it’s important to remember that the AP is still a not-for-profit organization collectively owned by American newspapers. When we’re looking for new revenue, it’s because it’s expensive to report the news, and we need to be able to fund that, it’s a very costly mission. The reality is that finding new sources of revenue like this allows us to be the AP.

(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

-th

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