Commentary

Ad.ly squeezes ads into social media

Updated: October 15, 2010, 4:04 PM ET
By Ryan Corazza | Special to ESPN.com

In the current social media landscape, our eyeballs are largely glued to what celebrities, athletes, musicians and other persons of interest are disseminating to the masses and how they're engaging with followers and friends.

[+] EnlargeNick Swisher's twitter status
ESPN.comHere's an example of an ad.ly-backed tweet from Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher.

And with millions tuned in to Twitter and Facebook on a daily basis via multiple channels (traditional Web browsing, mobile applications, etc.), they've become essential platforms for brands to keep themselves in the conversation.

But combine a brand looking for social-media exposure with celebrity influence, and it's a strategy where both sides stand to benefit.

And ad.ly is one startup leading the charge.

The company, which started a year ago, generates revenue for influencers (be it a Hollywood celeb, musician, athlete and the like) by placing ads in their social streams.

"Wherever there is great content, there's some sort of revenue model associated with it. But in this case, there wasn't," said Sean Rad, founder and president of the company. "We started ad.ly to introduce a brand into the conversation, and help these athletes, artists and celebrities make money from the value they're creating online, and the value they're creating for the audiences that they reach."

Currently, the network allows for this in Twitter streams and MySpace profiles.

But ad.ly is set to hard launch on Facebook mid- to late next week via fan page status updates.

With the hard launch, the company will also provide digital media bundles -- where influencers will be offered the opportunity to endorse across the three aforementioned platforms, as well as targeted ad placements on Facebook or other places on the Web their audience resides.

[+] EnlargeShawne Merriman
Tim Umphrey/Getty ImagesChargers linebacker Shawne Merriman now has lots of time to fire off some advertising-backed tweets.

The company boasts more than 70,000 publishers, with celebs such as Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan, Snoop Dogg and Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's girlfriend, Kristin Cavallari.

On the athlete side, ad.ly has a diverse mix of names across several sports, not limited to but including NBA stars such as Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh and Lamar Odom; MLB's Nick Swisher; the NFL's Shawne Merriman; soccer players Cristiano Ronaldo and Freddy Adu; and Olympic speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno.

Even Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is under the ad.ly umbrella.

Although some might have a negative reaction to athletes advertising to them instead of nonsponsored engagement -- this was a core reason why FanWaves, which I highlighted earlier this year, sought to keep ads out of the Twitter stream and instead on a link click-through -- ad.ly's service does a solid job of negating such qualms.

In fact, you might not even realize any sort of advertising is going on.

First, instead of a random gaggle of advertisements flying through an athlete's Twitter feed, ad.ly is able to pair athletes with brands they identify with, or that their audience enjoys, via analytics -- a technology that uses existing data to make an informed decision on a potential match.

Then, through an automated system, an athlete and his/her people can choose to decline or align themselves with the brand.

If an athlete chooses to take on one of these -- Rad refers to them as micro-endorsements -- ad.ly's copy team works with the advertiser and the celeb's team to nail proper wording and mirror his or her voice, which the athlete again can either accept or deny.

From there, the idea is that such a tweet really wouldn't be much different from what an athlete would be sharing -- and what his or her audience would like to see -- regardless of endorsement. And to keep it all transparent, the tweet is labeled as an ad.

Take this Pierce tweet from the ad.ly network on Aug. 26, in which he endorses the trailer for Columbia Pictures' "The Other Guys": "Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, guns, cops, explosions and Eva Mendes! I'm in haha. The Other Guys trailer is crazy http://bit.ly/bpgdMI (Ad)."

Think of it like getting paid to endorse a brand you identify with that's easily offered up to you, or Web content you enjoy and would be prone to share with friends or followers in the first place.

And it makes sense in the world of social media, where online connections are increasingly starting to dictate what content and brands we're seeing and hearing about.

Frequency varies and is up to an influencer's discretion, but Rad said once a week is average for an ad.ly network tweet from an influencer.

If an athlete or celeb is active and tweeting several times a day, which could add up to more than 100 in the course of a week, one such micro-endorsement is but a spit in the ocean.

And compared with pop-up ads or interspersals that litter the Web, ad.ly's style is relatively unobtrusive.

It can add up to no small chunk of change. Ad.ly vice president of marketing Krista Thomas said celebs are paid a flat fee per tweet based on an algorithm that looks at followers plus activity plus engagement (retweets, replies, click-through, etc.) and can make five figures on a single tweet. Additionally, depending on the specifics of an endorsement package, Rad said celebs can make six figures or more.

"It is meaningful revenue," Rad said. "And it's also meaningful opportunity to brands. That's scale. … We're increasing engagement between the 1 percent of users that are the reason the 99 percent are there."

Ryan Corazza is a freelance writer and Web designer based in Chicago who also contributes to ESPN Insider's NBA Rumor Central.

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