To say that Elon Musk’s user-verification updates for Twitter are a “fluid situation” is certainly an understatement.
In the two weeks since he took ownership of the company, Musk has changed his plan from charging $19.99 per month for account verification to $8. He also decided on Tuesday night to roll out gray verification check marks to certify publishers, commercial companies and major public figures as “official,” distinguishing them from users who will receive a blue check after purchasing a Twitter Blue subscription.
That didn’t last long. On Wednesday, Musk killed the idea. Then, around noon, he and other executives held an “advertiser town hall” with little advance notice to discuss worries on the minds of brands and agency partners.
Among the topics discussed, Musk was asked to clarify verification and requirements for brands. His response was simple: brands will need to pay for verification. In days to come, Twitter will “add granularity to verified badges, such as organizational affiliation & identification verification,” Musk tweeted on Wednesday.
If your head is spinning, you’re certainly not the only one. The uncertainty is weighing on agencies as they advise their clients.
“The volatility of these changes is another reason why we aren’t currently recommending clients pay for Twitter Blue verification at this time,” says Evoke Kyne EVP and head of social media Kate Callan.
Evoke Kyne is waiting to learn more about the implications of the checkmark and is not actively encouraging investment in Twitter verification until it is confident in the future direction of the platform, she says.
“Putting a price tag on that blue check transforms it to a status symbol, another signal that some are better or more than others,” adds Rachael Berkey, Clarity VP of social strategy. “Will it stay valuable in the long run? It's too early to say."
Previously, the blue check was available to accounts through a verification process meant to establish authenticity for people and brands. Allowing any user to purchase the blue check takes away from the legitimacy of verification, PR pros say. This change will make it harder for users to distinguish what is real and what’s not on the platform.
“Before recommending our clients purchase verification, we will want to assess what the process entails and how accounts are being assessed for verification,” says Callan. “We will also consider how accounts that were already verified will be affected. Will everyone get the same ‘checkmark’ or will there be different types of verification?”
Ketchum is recommending that clients consider whether they have the capacity to monitor the platform for bad actors misrepresenting their brand or executives.
“We need to make sure no one is out there creating fake accounts,” says Erin Ledbetter, Ketchum EVP and head of digital. “We like to think users are pretty discerning, but we know that’s not always the case, and we know these fake accounts are pretty good at faking it. It’s a matter of making sure the brand reputation is protected.”
This week, Twitter users created accounts impersonating former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Nintendo of America, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, LeBron James, Valve Software and Musk himself, among others. Most of the fake accounts were removed, but some stayed up for hours, Vox reported.
What seems to be the simplest solution may not be one at all. Paying for Twitter verification is not a “silver bullet” for company executives, brands and organizations to protect themselves, says Golin global president of digital Jeff Beringer.
“It would be one part of a holistic approach to building trust and credibility on Twitter,” he says. “We are telling brands and execs they should keep a close eye on the final features and details.”
The big question is whether having a checkmark will carry as much weight as it did before, especially if everyone has one.
One differentiator could be what brands say on the platform. Brands and boldface names will need to create consistent, trustworthy content that reinforces the people behind that profile.
“There are simple things publishers can do to make it clear that it is really them behind the content,” says Beringer. “All these, in aggregate, can help establish or strengthen trust beyond the blue checkmark.”
Amid the breakneck pace of changes at the company, some brands and social media managers might be tempted to abandon Twitter altogether. That’s not wise…yet. Although the situation at Twitter is confusing, many brands are taking a wait-and-see approach rather than cutting advertising spend or leaving altogether.
Ketchum is keeping an eye on public opinion about the use of Twitter and whether there are concerns about brands operating on the platform. The agency is also watching key performance indicators closely to see if a Twitter presence makes business sense.
“At this point, with the exception of brands in certain categories, we have not made a blanket recommendation that brands should change their strategy at this time,” Ledbetter says.
The only industry in which Ketchum has advised clients to pause advertising is automotive, and that’s due to concerns about data privacy, says Ledbetter.
“Musk also owning Tesla is a concern for auto companies looking to get into the [electric vehicle] space,” she says. “We don’t want their brand strategy, targeting and investment information getting in the hands of a competitor.”
Audi, General Motors and Volkswagen are among the brands that have paused their advertising campaigns on Twitter in recent weeks.
Mastodon is one alternative to Twitter, and people who are unhappy with Musk’s changes are flocking there. Mastodon on Sunday said it gained 489,000 users in less than two weeks, giving it more than 1 million active monthly users.
Beringer says Golin is evaluating options on whether clients should join Twitter’s rivals.
“We ask: do the alternatives have the right audience for them, either in scale or types of people they are trying to reach?” he says. Clients also need to consider what kind of baggage might come with another social network, such as issues like TikTok is having with misinformation and calls for bans.
Leaving Twitter cold turkey might be difficult for brands, depending on how they employ the platform.
“Sometimes brands use it for paid advertising and organic news sharing or customer service,” says Beringer. “[Clients] are looking at what the impact of [leaving Twitter or joining an alternative] would be to all of those different audiences.”
Going forward, one major piece of advice Berkey has for Twitter is the need for Musk and his team to clearly communicate the guardrails they're implementing to their users.
“Verification should instill confidence,” she says. “Musk is doing the opposite.”
Golin’s tips for clients approaching Twitter:
- Make sure brands and executives submit additional verification proof so their checkmarks are accompanied by other markers;
- Contribute relevant content frequently, which reinforces they’re behind the profile and invested in the community;
- Include video that further proves the “known” individual associated with the handle is indeed behind the content;
- Cross-link the verified Twitter handle to and from other company-owned, trusted channels, such brand websites or pressrooms;
- Cross-link to Twitter from an executive’s other social accounts, notably their LinkedIn profile;
- Follow brand handles and colleagues from their company;
- Tag other credible handles like news outlets or other verified users in their tweets.