Will Spam Kill Twitter

Twitter Posts on Paint Projects, Ear Infections Annoy Users

By Joseph Galante

April 17 (Bloomberg) -- Rachel Gard, who started using Twitter two months ago to keep in touch with friends, says she may stop using the site if companies keep contacting her.

Already Home Depot Inc. has wished her luck painting her room, a medical company recommended its device for her ear infection, and a DJ told her to check out his single.

“I don’t want random people contacting me,” said Gard, 21, who lives in Clearwater, Florida. “Don’t try to sell yourself through my Twitter.”

Twitter users post 140-character updates about their lives, making the site a potential goldmine for marketers wanting to know what customers are thinking about. While Twitter Inc. could make money by charging companies to send “tweets” to potential customers, the corporate babble may alienate users, threatening to stem the 18-fold growth in visitors in the past year.

“It is starting to get out of control,” said Christopher Peri, founder of TwittFilter, a Web site that lets users restrict who can follow updates they post to Twitter. “The original value of Twitter is friends talking to friends. When someone says, ‘I’m going to pimp this product,’ it’s no longer a social media.”

Visitors to Twitter in the U.S. increased to 9.31 million in March, up from 524,000 in the same month last year, according to ComScore Inc. Celebrities and politicians, including President Barack Obama, have embraced the service.

Business Model

For now, the San Francisco-based company lets consumers and businesses use the service for free. The site is only starting to generate revenue. Twitter has raised more than $50 million from investors, including Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, Benchmark Capital and Institutional Venture Partners.

As Twitter grows, companies are increasingly interested in reaching its users -- a group seen as less likely to respond to traditional advertising. Dunkin Donuts Inc. answers customer questions on Twitter, Best Buy Co. encourages its employees to use the site, and Hewlett-Packard Co. has about 50 people tracking Twitter every day.

While these approaches may not be intrusive, some companies are using the service to send spam and unsolicited marketing -- a problem Twitter is taking steps to fix. The company disabled a feature this month that allowed users to automatically “follow” people who follow them. Spammers used this feature to quickly set up mass networks.

Fighting Spam

Twitter also has a spam team developing ways to detect and delete spam, co-founder Biz Stone said. Users can already block people from sending them messages.

“Spam will always be an issue that requires attention,” Stone said in an e-mail. “Our goal is to stay ahead of spam and keep the user experience great for folks on Twitter.”

Twitter gets some revenue from Microsoft Corp., which sponsors a site that carries Tweets from executives. While Twitter hasn’t said how it will make money apart from that, the company has indicated that it may charge businesses for access to its users. There are numerous outside programs, such as TwitterTroll and Tweefind, that companies use to comb the site for references to their products.

For now, spam isn’t a crippling problem, said Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Forrester Research Inc. Businesses’ efforts to tap Twitter are a sign of the service’s success, he said.

“I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing,” Owyang said. “They can’t stop it. It’s a sign that they’re becoming more mainstream.”

Red Pinstripes

Gard, who was planning to paint her bedroom gray with red pinstripes, posted an update April 1 telling her friends that she needed to shop for paint at Home Depot, Lowe’s or Ace Hardware. Within 15 minutes, Home Depot sent Gard a message on Twitter wishing her luck and telling her to let them know if she needed help.

Days later, when she complained about an ear infection, she got a message from Eardoc, which sells a device for treating ear ailments. The company sent Gard a message saying, “Fast and safe relief for ear infection is Eardoc.”

“I was like, ‘What?’” Gard said. “I was really confused. I didn’t even know businesses did that.”

Home Depot, the world’s largest home-improvement retailer, mainly uses Twitter to help customers, rather than pushing products, said Sarah Molinari, a spokeswoman who maintains the company’s Twitter account.

“If they want to engage with us, great,” Molinari said. “That’s their decision, but at least we were accessible at a time when they may have needed us to be.”

Eardoc didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Fair Game?

Reaching consumers in this way is probably fair game for companies because users’ Tweets are available for anyone to see, said Greg Galant, CEO at Sawhorse Media LLC, a media research company based in New York.

Even so, companies that troll the site risk becoming overbearing, he said.

“You can imagine mentioning the word ‘paint’ and 10 paint companies contact you about ordering paint from their Web site,” Galant said. “Eventually Twitter may have to put in more filters.”

Twitter users can also be part of the problem. Services such as Magpie and AdCause pay Twitter users for the right to post ads in their streams of messages. The posts are formatted just like regular Tweets, with a label to show they are ads.

‘In Your Face’

Ann Finnie, a spokeswoman for Hewlett-Packard, monitors mentions of her company on Twitter. She says she tries to be helpful to people when reaching out to users, without being irritating.

“I’ve never had anybody say, ‘Leave me alone,’” Finnie said. “In my experience, they’re happily surprised that we’re paying attention.”

Companies are trying to figure out the best balance, said Beverly Macy, who teaches social media classes at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Are we going to be seen as in your face or are we going to be seen as helpful?” Macy said. “What are the rules of engagement? Companies are grappling with this right now, and they’re sorting it out in different ways.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Joseph Galante in San Francisco at jgalante3@bloomberg.net