“I must have pinched a nerve in my neck,” Kim Kardashian tweeted recently. “I can hardly look to my left. I will pass on my workout today. I need a massage.” On the surface, this post seems like a fairly mundane musing for the reality-TV star, who frequently writes about herself and her TV show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, on Twitter. But recently, Kardashian—who has a formidable 2.7 million followers—began including advertisements in her 140-character updates: a tweet leading to a Nestle commercial, a background on her Twitter page touting the fast-food chain Carl’s Jr. The price for Kardashian’s tweets? $10,000 or more per post.
Click Image to View Our Gallery of Stars' Tweet Values
Kardashian is one of many celebrities who now command substantial fees for peppering their posts with commercial name-dropping. Dr. Drew Pinsky, Lauren Conrad, and Samantha Ronson earn four figures per tweet, a spokesperson from Ad.ly—a popular Twitter advertising service—told The Daily Beast.
Several new companies, like the Beverly Hills-based Ad.ly, are facilitating the relationship between brands eager to jump on the social-networking bandwagon. “The beauty of Twitter is that everyone is an influencer in their own right,” said Sean Rad, Ad.ly’s CEO. “Everyone is a content creator and holds a level of influence within their following.” He explains that the company is designing a “pricing algorithm” that assesses the value of someone’s audience depending on how many followers they have and how many of those people are actually listening, among other variables. Other reality stars, like Kim Kardashian’s sister Khloe, Kendra Wilkinson, and Lauren Conrad, can command anywhere from $5,000-$10,000 per tweet. Even a fake Twitter account for Twilight god Rob Pattinson can command anywhere from $1,000-$5,000 per tweet.
Several celebrities have already signed on to the site, where they are matched with advertisers who deliver specific messages for them to tweet. “All of our publishers are very responsible about choosing the brand that really matches their audience and content,” Rad explained.
Sponsored tweets may seem like an easy way of striking it rich—but there are dangers as well. All sponsored posts must, by the laws of the Federal Trade Commission, be fully disclosed by the person who owns the account. Serena Williams recently attracted attention (though avoided punishment) last fall when she tweeted about Nabisco’s 100 Calorie Packs, which she is paid to endorse. “Venus and I are shooting a campaign for Nabisco 100 Calorie Packs!!” Williams tweeted, “They r soooo amazingly good we keep eating them. But we arnt worried….We r not worried about staying fit because the Nabiso Calorie Packs are only 100 calories!! U guys must run out and try them!!”
Also problematic with paid tweets is the risk of annoying or exploiting a loyal audience. After Dr. Drew tweeted an ad for NBC’s show Community through Ad.ly this fall, he told CNN: “It’s treacherous… I don’t want people to think I’m exploiting my followers.” Because he was worried about alienating his base, he said, “It’s something I would only do very, very occasionally and really has to be something I already feel I would support.”
Last week, when Kardashian’s followers learned the news that her tweets commanded $10,000, they were crushed: "'Kim Kardashian has an influence value of $10K per tweet,’ THAT’s what’s wrong w/ society,” one user wrote. Tweeted another: “How is it Kim Kardashian makes $10K per tweet and the rest of us don’t even see a penny?” (Kardashian denied the claim to her followers, writing: "I want my fans to know what products, gadgets, foods, clothes and beauty products I like and I love sharing all that with my fans.")
“It’s treacherous,” says Dr. Drew. “I don’t want people to think I’m exploiting my followers.”
“There’s a very high risk of antagonizing your followers, and it’s very, very easy to unfollow,” says tech guru Anil Dash, who is the director of public technology at Expert Labs. “Because of that, you have to be very judicious in how you incorporate advertising. Every ad sales person wants to push the limits. The difference is, when people get more aggressive in print, a publisher is going to say that blurs the line between advertising and editorial. In this case, you’ll just lose that subscriber.”
Another minefield, according to Dash, is the rampant inflation of Twitter followers: No one, he says, actually has a million followers on Twitter. Hundreds of thousands of people follow people like Kim Kardashian because she’s on a list of suggested users presented to people when they join. Many accounts are inactive, others are monitored by Twitter “bots”—or automated accounts—and don’t actually represent followers. “There are some celebrities, and non-celebrities, who will try to sell ads saying they have a million followers,” Dash explains. “Most advertisers are not going to be savvy enough to figure out that that might not be real.”
To mitigate this problem, a company called Assetize has also developed an algorithm to categorize users by their subject matter—be it sports or entertainment—to then package them to advertisers by topic. And instead of pricing users by the size of their following, they pay users based on the number of clicks each ad generates. “It should not be about how someone is followed,” said Saif Ajani, co-founder and CEO of Assetize. He says their system “is very much performance-based. If your Twitter account actually generates clicks, and your ad is viewed by somebody, you’re compensated for it.” Ajani says the company is launching an “athlete monetization network,” where advertisers can sponsor sports stars’ Twitter feeds.
While companies compete to find a strategy that effectively allows advertisers to find an audience on Twitter—and for users to be paid for the content they produce—a solution may be far off. “Advertising on other people’s Twitter accounts is not going to be as effective in the long term as having your own account that other people follow,” Dash said. “Hopefully what people will understand is that they have to ultimately own the channels with which they communicate with their customers.”
Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.