Claire Beale On Advertising: It's time adland wised up to Twitter

If you follow these things you'll probably know that the biggest topic trending on Twitter in the US last week was something called SXSW, a painfully fashionable gathering at the cutting edge of music, film and interactive media. It takes place every year in Austin, Texas, and is cooler than a Mr Whippy.

The SXSW (or South By Southwest as it's known by those of us who aren't character-counting) whirl included sessions like "Program or be Programmed", "Networked Love, Bonding, Intimacy: Our Interactive Digital Clouds", and "Best Practices for Contextual Applications".

So a group of tweet freaks at an inny festival in the deep south, amplified by their followers and adoring re- tweeters, made more noise on Twitter last week than all the other tweeters out in the real world, talking about real stuff like St Patrick's Day or Lady Gaga or Tiger Woods's underpants. Aha, go the Twitter sceptics. Told you. This Twitter thing is really for the techie geeks and people with nothing better to do. It's a fad, a fashion, driven by digital obsessives.

But, oh, what numbers Twitter now has. Too many for this to be just a platform for the navel-picking of the new-media crowd. Twitter is a mass medium. And I mean mass.

Last month the site announced that roughly 50 million tweets were being posted every day, and this month Twitter notched up its 10 billionth tweet. The growth is phenomenal.

Imagine, then, the world's army of marketers and ad agencies slavering over the Twitter phenomenon. Millions of people, billions of conversations, all happening in one place, easily trackable, totally participatory and utterly free.

Except that, erm, marketers are being rather cautious about Twitter. Roughly 20 per cent of tweets now contain a reference to a product or brand, but many marketers are only now starting to track these conversations and use the consumer insight they provide.

According to a new study by Virgin Media Business, only 16 of the FTSE Top 100 companies are using Twitter to communicate with customers, and though 57 of them have signed on to Twitter, most have left their account lying dormant.

Their ad agencies haven't really been pushing the potential, either. Strange, when you consider that adland has tended to grab at anything digital with giddy excitement.

Sure, there are plenty of tweeters from the adland pack (though not as many as you'd expect from all the industry talk). But as an advertising medium ... well let's be honest, the big agency players are still struggling to embrace the web itself, where there are neat advertising boxes to fill and where you can run film. Twitter, which doesn't currently invite ads, requires a different strategic approach.

But things are about to change. According to "industry insiders" (who are generally to be trusted, of course), Twitter is going to dip its digital toe into online advertising this summer, introducing sponsored listings to accompany its real-time search results. A bit like Google.

This, at last, should get marketers interested. Once they can pay for Twitter, treating it like any other commodity that they can haggle over, the same way they buy their paper clips or the toilet rolls for the staff loos, advertisers will understand Twitter better.

Twitter, though, needs to be careful about how it integrates commercial messages. The site is essentially a place for sharing information and having conversations; users aren't really in the same sort of "search" mode they are when they use Google.

What will take Twitter on to an interesting level for brands is the introduction of its location-tracking tool, unveiled last week, which will allow advertisers to serve geographically specific ads tagged to where people are actually tweeting from.

But it needs to get a move on. Apparently at SXSW, where Twitter first broke through back in 2007, the fashion was fading. It seems the busy fingers were doing less tweeting and more posting on GPS location sites like FourSquare and Gowalla. Which might just be what the rest of us are doing this time next year.

Best in show: Specsavers (In-house team)

Remember the Lynx ad where hundreds of bikini-clad babes run down to the beach, magnetised by a bloke on the sand showering himself with Lynx. Of course you do. So does the in-house creative team at Specsavers, because they’ve just released a terrific spoof of the Lynx commercial. Only this time our hero pulls out a frightful pair of big red specs and immediately becomes utterly resistable. It’s directed by Rattling Stick’s Danny Kleinman – and proves that sometimes clients really can make ads as good as agencies.