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Selling Umbrellas in a Synagogue

A few months ago, Twitter invited me to participate in their advertising program. Basically what they do is allow you to purchase follows via a Promoted Account and purchase clicks, favorites and retweets via Promoted Tweets. I poked around the interface for a little while and ultimately decided not to try it out. To me, there’s something kind of icky about purchasing Twitter follows (even from Twitter itself).

But I got this in an email from them this morning:

Given that they were nice enough to credit me 100 bucks I decided to put aside my misgivings and give it a shot. We’ve been thinking a lot about online advertising recently at my startup, and so I thought it would be interesting in comparison to Adwords and LinkedIn Ads.

I set aside $50 to spend on a “Promoted Account” and $50 to spend on “Promoted Tweets”.

The Promoted Tweets function allows you to pick a few of your tweets and have them show up in other peoples’ stream. I selected a few of my most scintillating 140-character tidbits and let ‘er rip.

Those are pretty cool results! An 8% CTR is rather astoundingly high by online advertising standards.

The next thing that I noticed is that promoted accounts don’t seem to work too well:

They tell you to optimize your bio so people can connect with you more readily. I neglected to do so and forged ahead with all of my current settings. The result was that for $11 I got 6 followers.

My first thought was “this is dumb”. The ROI on something like this has to be very low. For the Promoted Tweets, I did get 130 clicks, but I couldn’t target those clicks at all beyond geographic region. And as far as the followers, I already have 3,000. How valuable could 6 extra really be?

For a total of $61.81 spent it didn’t seem like I was getting very much.

But as I thought about it more, I realized that what made that money seem like such a bad deal, was tied to the reason that advertising on Twitter feels icky to me: when you throw ads onto Twitter, you start treating it in the same way that you would Google. You begin to start measuring things like CTR, conversion rate and ROI.

But the way people interact with Twitter is fundamentally different from the way people interact with Google. And so measuring things like CTR and conversion rate on Twitter is completely missing the point.

Let me give you an example.

If you’re ever in New York and it begins to rain, a stunning and incredible ritual occurs. As soon as the clouds begin to form, a bunch of guys suddenly materialize toting umbrellas. They walk around the whole time it’s raining selling them for 5 bucks a pop.

I’ve been in at least a few rainstorms and have thought to myself “hey, what the hell?” and just bought one. After the rain goes away, the vendors just disappear into thin air.

The guys selling the umbrellas are filling an expressed need. When it’s raining out and people are walking around and getting wet, they need umbrellas. The vendors conveniently swoop in because they see that need and fill it.

The same thing happens on Google: people are already searching for things that they want. They’re like people getting wet in a rainstorm. They’ve expressed need, and they have the oft-quoted “purchase intent”. So putting an ad next to search results makes perfect sense. The ad is just like the guy hawking umbrellas.

But Twitter is not like Google. And selling things on Twitter is not like selling things on Google. Twitter is not like a rainy Manhattan avenue.

Twitter is like a synagogue.

Every Saturday at a synagogue a bunch of people get together. The relationship is social, and it’s communal. They go to synagogue for the services and then the schmoozing afterward.

Twitter is similar. Their tagline is, “Find out what’s happening, right now, with the people and organizations you care about.” Twitter is social. Twitter is communal.

And so, selling things on Twitter is like taking our Manhattan umbrella vendor, and having him go try to sell umbrellas in synagogue.

Imagine the scene. A bunch of hungry people are eating bagels and lox after services and chatting amongst themselves. Suddenly some guy comes up toting a bunch of umbrellas.

“Hey I know you’re busy talking with your friends but can I interest you in an umbrella? It only costs $5. It’s a great deal!”

I shiver even thinking of having to do something like that. It’s grotesque. And most importantly, it’s very unlikely to work.

What’s interesting to note is that the people that the vendor is talking to are the same people that minutes earlier may have bought an umbrella from him on the street on their way to temple. But now that the context is shifted, it completely changes the way the sales pitch is perceived.

In advertising, context is everything. And an umbrella vendor in a synagogue misses that entirely. As Gary Vaynerchuk might say, he’s like a teenage boy with his first girlfriend. He’s trying to close too fast!

So how you sell umbrellas in a synagogue?

Well, let’s say you’re Moses Goldstein of Goldstein Umbrellas. You go to services every Saturday. And then you go eat with the community. You share advice, and expertise. You trade stories with people in other industries.

It may seem like you’re just idly wasting your time. If you go and measure the ROI of what you’re doing it will stand at zero. It looks like it’s a very bad idea for you to pay your yearly dues at the synagogue.

But what you’re really doing is a primitive non-scalable version of content marketing. With every person you talk to, and every story you swap you’re establishing yourself as a trustworthy, reliable and well-liked authority on umbrellas.

Still, you won’t see any ROI.

Then one day a member of congregation comes up to you and says, “Hey Moses, my company is looking for an umbrella vendor. Of course the first person I thought of is you!”

And you suddenly have a new customer.
What this says to me is that there are a lot of companies that are going to get on to Twitter’s advertising platform, throw a few thousands dollars at it, see a low conversion rate and conclude “This sucks!” These are the guys that are selling umbrellas in a synagogue.

But as people understand the social web more they’ll begin to realize that on social sites the advertising context is shifted in much the same as the context is shifted between the street and the synagogue. In the street, the relationship is all about immediate need. You have a need, I’m the most convenient way to fill it.

By contrast, in a synagogue, the relationship is all about connection. It’s about developing and cultivating bonds between people in a genuine fashion. And then once those bonds have been formed, they’ll be utilized when need arises i.e. when someone is looking for an umbrella vendor. The arc on the relationship is many times longer than the arc on the relationship with a street vendor. The upshot of it is that Twitter allows you to build those relationships in a scalable way.

So am I going to continue using Promoted Tweets? Nah, but I do have a startup called Firefly. If you’re interested in doing better customer support I’d love to talk to you about it some time.


18 Oct 2012, 9:00am | 11 comments

  • http://netoctave.com NetOctave

    Ha,, and thats exactly why I hate google’s targeted Ads. Any site you visit (sports, movie, technology – the topic does not matter) you get the same advertisement,based on what you searched a week before.

    Its like selling me an umbrella wherever I go stalking (or chasing) me all the way… No matter whether its raining. And all this only because I was interested in an umbrella last week when it was raining…..

    • http://danshipper.com danshipper

      Hahaha that’s perfect. You’re exactly right, that’s a great extension of the analogy.

      • http://www.mikecousins.com Mike Cousins

        Taking that even further, it’s usually for stuff that I’ve already bought. I always get ads for the last several purchases I’ve made plus my webhost. That’s like trying to sell me an umbrella while I’m carrying one!

        • http://danshipper.com danshipper

          Yes exactly, i.e. there are gross inefficiencies in the way online advertising is conducted today. Now the question is, who’s going to solve them?

  • Reform-a-dox

    “What’s interesting to note is that the people that the vendor is talking to are the same people that minutes earlier may have bought an umbrella from him on the street on their way to temple. But now that the context is shifted, it completely changes the way the sales pitch is perceived.”

    No one will buy an umbrella on the way to Shabbat services, and no one will be buying anything inside the synagogue.

    • http://danshipper.com danshipper

      Fair enough, maybe in application to strictly observant Jews the observation doesn’t apply. But I think in general the message holds: when selling context is everything.

  • Scott

    You’re assuming the use cases for Twitter are as narrow as Google Search.

    • http://danshipper.com danshipper

      Are Google search’s use cases narrow? I’m mostly arguing that while Twitter advertising can be useful, the way it has to be done is incredibly different than the way Google ads are done. Both in the way that they’re measured, and the type of action that they are targeting i.e. selling something immediately vs building a relationship

  • Adam

    I have to start going to Synagogue more!

  • http://joncordeiro.com Jon

    This is a great read. I love the analogy.

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