You might wonder why a 10 year old web building business managed to become the number one trending topic on Twitter this last week, with the moonfruit hashtag being tweeted in excess of 10,000 times an hour at one point. The answer is not as straightforward as some would have you believe.
OK, the facts of the matter seem pretty simple: the Moonfruit marketing department decided to run a 'competition' to celebrate 10 years in business whereby anyone who included #moonfruit in their postings on Twitter would be entered into a random draw. The prize, spread across a 10 day period, would be 10 MacBook Pros.
With more than 200,000 such postings a day at the peak of this moonfruit madness, the chances of winning one of the prizes was less than 1 in 200,000 which are pretty slim odds. The chances of losing friends, however, are much higher. Reading some of the comments from those people I follow on Twitter, a surprisingly large number were expressing their displeasure at this latest bit of hashtag marketing.
Someone, and I apologise in advance for not being able to recall who, calculated that the Moonfruit campaign had effectively bought media impressions at a CPM rate below 50 cents, which is so low as to be in the spam sector. The truth of the matter is that it must also have caught the attention of others, after all there are not many places on the Internet where you can get this kind of exposure for that kind of money without being labelled as an out and out spammer.
Unfortunately, that is the problem and it brings me back to my original point. Is this clever marketing or just old fashioned spam wrapped up in the latest social networking hype? I am inclined towards the latter, no matter what anyone else might call it. I have heard names such as 'Tweet to Win' and 'Hashtag Economics' bandied about, but spam seems to fit a whole lot better.
Whereas ordinarily if someone posts something of interest on Twitter, be that a link to a news item or video clip or even a new product announcement, it will initially be limited to exposure before just that group of people who follow the account in question. If that account only posts what people consider advertising then the chances are the number of followers will remain pretty small. If a posting is of wider interest then the process of re-tweeting, whereby a follower copies the message and posts it to their followers, ensures that the wisdom of crowds approach comes into play and spreads the word. It is an organic process, and one that works surprisingly well. Indeed, most days of the week the trending topics list on Twitter acts as an accurate barometer of the things that matter to the wired population.
Introduce the fakery of bribes into the mix and it all goes to pot. It could have been worse, of course, as at least Moonfruit did not go down the road of requiring posters to retweet a commercial message in order to have a chance of winning the prize, but rather just include that hashtag. Moonfruit were, quite obviously, going for the trending topics list and viewing this as a kind of mysterious beacon that would gain the attention of the media.
The media, myself included, has covered it. Moonfruit will continue getting totally free publicity from it until the fuss dies down. Even after that, anyone who has a Twitter account will have the Moonfruit brand in the back of their mind when next someone asks them about web building companies. In that regard there is no doubting that the hashtag spamming has worked, so it will probably go down in the online history books as being a social media marketing success story.
My worry, and I say this because I actually am rather fond of Twitter (you can follow me there as happygeek) as a social media mechanism, is that it will signal a whole raft of similar spam disguised as a message from your mate. If that 'mate' sends too much of this in my direction then the chances are I will stop following them, and then I have lost an online friend and my social network starts to slowly fall apart. Chances are that is not going to happen, and if one of the people I follow did become a Tweet-to-Win (TtW) fanatic then it would not be a great loss in the scheme of things. But what if they only did it once or twice, and half of my social network also only did it once or twice but for different TtW operations? How much would my Twitter stream be diluted, how easy would it be to spot, how would my social network recover?
In a blog response to complaints of spamming, a Moonfruit spokesperson called Joe says "There is no doubt we wanted to create buzz, but we didn't expect it to get so big. If you read the customer posts the overwhelming majority are very positive and people are playing with the name and being very creative. We're trying to shift things towards this more creative response as this is in line with our company objective of creating websites and empowering people to do so."
Joe does also admit that "in a week or so, this will all be forgotten" but I am not so sure it will...
In the past I have questioned whether celebrities are killing Twitter but perhaps it would be wise to start looking away from the egocentric world of the celebs and towards the financially driven commercial sector for a likely murderer?
I'm a hacker turned writer and consultant, specialising in IT security. I've been a freelance word punk for over 20 years and along the way I have seen 23 of my books published, produced and presented programmes for TV and radio, picked up a bunch of awards and continue being a contributing editor with PC Pro - the best selling IT magazine in the UK .
Much of the premise of Twitter is, of course, self-promotional. Heck, all those celebs aren't in it just to make new friends are they?
However, while the Moonfruit promo was clever marketing in the short term I am not convinced it was great brand treatment overall.
Certainly there has been a lot of Twitter backlash against the hashtag spam concept however it is served up. While Moonfruit is not alone in participating in this particular social media marketing concept, it is the brand that the vast majority of Twitter using folk will associate with it currently.
Is that good for a brand, I'm not so so sure it is. Is it good for Twitter, I am convinced it is not.
Overall, I noticed that complaints about spam were in the minority, with praises for the marketing campaign making up most of the vote and supported by some very enthusiastic tweeps hoping to score themselves a shiny new Macbook Pro.
That said, at the moment, neither Twitter nor the application developer community have come up with a way to limit the improper use of hashtags and this leaves the door open for continued commercial abuse. It's not so much the major campaigns like Moonfruit that are the problem, but more, the hijackers that use the popular hashtags to push their affiliate links and 'get rich quick' schemes.
Charging for such campaigns is one way Twitter could monetize and also limit abuse of hashtags. Perhaps a CPM for hashtag views? And perhaps a temporary suspension for Tweeps who use a certain hashtag too often on the same day? Or even a sophisticated system that scans a tweet for contextual relevance and gives it a Adwords type quality score?