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Elon Musk’s Twitter town hall does little to assuage advertiser questions and concerns

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It’s been three years since Elon Musk famously tweeted “I hate advertising.” However, those pithy few words now seem light years away as Twitter’s new owner flies through Ad Land’s wormhole to become its newest pitch man.

On Wednesday afternoon, Musk made his most public appearance since buying Twitter two weeks ago, joined a Twitter Spaces live-audio discussion to address advertiser concerns and explain his vision for the future of the platform. Moderated by Robin Wheeler, Twitter’s global head of ad sales, the hour-long talk attracted more than 100,000 listeners who tuned in for the conversation. Despite Musk’s assurances that he’s serious about improving Twitter’s ad products and mitigating issues related to misinformation and hate speech, some marketers said it seemed like maybe the billionaire who is still more used to rockets and self-driving cars still has a lot to learn about online advertising.

Musk mentioned a few ways he wants to improve Twitter’s advertising capabilities while also outlining new ideas to build out the platform’s video and creator capabilities. However, many of his ideas already exist and have been part of digital advertising strategies for the better part of the past decade. For example, he wants to make ads “as close to content as possible” — seemingly referring to e-commerce — while also finding ways to integrate ads into recommended tweets. (He said it’s “great” to give users ways to buy things they “actually want when you want it,” an acknowledgment of the power in personalized marketing.)

“Twitter needs to be useful to advertisers in both the short term and driving demand and in the long term,” Musk said. “… I mean, at the end of the day, short-term and long-term demand is kind of what it comes down to. So drive sales in the short term and protect the demand in the long term.”

According to Musk, brands should “rest assured that Twitter is a good place to advertise and if we see things that are creating problems in that regard, we will take action to address it.” However, some marketers that listened to the discussion said it seemed like Musk didn’t have much of a plan at all. (One said Musk sounded defeated while another said that “hearing the ineptitude live is shocking.”)

Twitter faces a number of challenges on the advertising front. Last week, the company’s head of ad sales, Sarah Personette, announced her resignation, which left many to wonder what the future of the company’s ad sales leadership might look like. Liz Miller, an analyst at Constellation Research, said now is a key time since advertisers are planning 2023 budgets — and especially critical this season ahead of next year’s economic uncertainties.

“What Twitter needs most right now are steadying voices and forces working within the ship to steady nerves and answer real questions,” Miller said. “This is not the time to allow chaos to swirl as budget holders and planners are seriously reviewing opportunities to drive growth and invest in engagements with customers…So now what? Who is going to steady the ship?”

A crash course in advertising

In the two weeks since Musk took over, major advertiser such as General Motors, Pfizer and others paused paid media amid concerns about the safety of the platform and other issues. According to data released last week by the ad-tracking firm MediaRadar, Twitter’s total number of advertisers declined from 3,900 in May — around the time the offer to buy Twitter was announced — to 2,300 in August before increasing again in September when the deal looked like it might not go through after all. (Some speculated that could be because of the holiday season upswing while others wonder if advertisers returned after the road looked maybe a little clearer.)

Right now, “every day is a dog year” for Twitter, according to an executive from one top media-buying agency, who said Musk’s words to advertisers don’t match up with his other statements or actions. The executive said it seems like Musk might not fully be aware of Twitter’s power.

“I’d anticipate he has less awareness of running a public forum around the world,” the executive said. “But the ad part is pretty simple compared to the public policy side.”

When asked if being the CEO of Tesla might be an issue for auto advertisers — concerns like if auto brands’ data will be protected or if they might be at a disadvantage on the platform — Musk said Twitter needs to be “as fair as possible” in order to attract auto advertisers.

Musk also suggested that advertisers and their CEOs and CMOs in particular should “be more active on the system,” something that marketers already have been using Twitter for since early on. The billionaire — who’s been investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for some of his tweets — said he would “encourage people just to be more adventurous.”

“That’s certainly what I’ve done on Twitter with Tesla, and myself, and SpaceX, and it’s worked out quite well,” he said. “But I’m definitely not going to do anything which is somehow advantageous to Tesla.”

Musk also welcomed feedback from advertisers and invited them to reply to his tweets if there’s something they don’t like. However, he’s already blocked some that have tried. Last week, he temporarily blocked Lou Paskalis, president and chief operating officer of the Mobile Marketing Association, after the prominent marketer tweeted him asking about brand safety concerns related to the content moderation team’s layoffs.

When asked by Wheeler if he has anything to say to the brands that have paused their advertising so far, Musk said he understands “if people wanted to kind of give it a minute and kind of see how things are evolving.” He also asked if anyone on the call wanted to speak up and disagree with his claim that content has already improved, but nobody took him up on the offer.

“If things go wrong, it’s my fault because the buck stops with me,” Musk said. “But I would like to hear what people have to say and then we’ll make our decisions accordingly. And obviously, if we make or if I make decisions that people don’t like then advertisers will leave the system and users will leave the system, and then we’ll fail.”

Hate speech, verification, and content moderation

Musk was also asked about Twitter’s content moderation policies and enforcement efforts. According to Musk, nothing has changed since he took over. However, what wasn’t mentioned was how many people were let go from those teams as part of the company’s mass layoffs. He added: “I don’t think having hate speech next to an ad is great, obviously.”

“It stands to reason that if somebody’s advertising, they do not want super negative information right next to their ad or content that may be inappropriate,” Musk said. “…We are going to work hard to make sure there’s not bad stuff right next to an ad, which doesn’t serve anyone any good.”

Another thing Musk addressed was the currently contentious topic of requiring users to pay $8 a month for a verified account. He said that’ll also be the case for brands — explaining that the company is “trying to be an equal treatment situation — but that “if somebody is really hell-bent on not paying, I’ll pay it for them.”

Musk also offered his definition of “brand safety,” explaining that “the brand overall is protected reputationally in the long term.” He added that it includes not appearing next to hateful content.

“If I were myself in the CEO or CMO position of any advertiser, I’d say ‘Well, I want to make sure we do drive sales in the short term, but we’re also not doing anything that damages our reputation in the long term,” he said. “So we need to address both short and long-term factors.”

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