On Thursday, Aug. 30, the same day Mitt Romney delivered his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, two topics skyrocketed to the top of Twitter trends , the real-time ranking of what the network’s 500 million users are buzzing about. Topping the list, right up there with Jersey Shore, was #RomneyRyan2012 and #BelieveInAmerica.
This was no coincidence. While most trending topics appear organically, businesses and brands can also pay--up to $120,000 a day--to appear as a Promoted Trend. Romney’s two Promoted Trends were the first ever purchased in a presidential campaign. It seems they worked, fueling a staggering 538,000 tweets  that day about the convention before Romney even went on stage.
Welcome to the brave new world of paid social media. Introduced back in 2011, Promoted Trends are part of a wave of social ads popping up on the world’s largest networks. For a price, brands, businesses and campaigns are also paying to have Promoted Tweets and Facebook Sponsored Stories injected right into users’ home streams.
What makes these ads unique, of course, is that apart from tiny disclaimers, they don’t really look like ads at all. They’re not set off in special boxes or banners. For all intents and purposes, they’re just another message from your circle of friends or followers. Little wonder they’re catching on fast.
To some, this kind of paid social messaging is a logical evolution for Facebook, Twitter and other networks. To others, it’s a betrayal of social media’s grassroots ethos. Behind the debate, however, one thing is abundantly clear: social ads are shaking up the age-old way that companies pitch clients. And as social media and paid advertising converge, enormous new risks and rewards await marketers.
To understand this paradigm shift, a little Marketing 101 is in order. Traditionally, businesses have relied on three types of media to reach audiences. Paid media includes TV spots, billboards, digital banner ads, etc. that a company pays for to get the word out. Owned media consists of a business’ own resources: websites, newsletters, and social media presence. Earned media is a potent mix of word of mouth, news stories, user reviews, and social media mentions.
Social ads like Promoted Tweets and Sponsored Stories bring these different media channels together in brand new, highly coordinated ways. Tweets and Facebook posts, for instance, are generally born as owned media--hatched by in-house marketing or community teams. In the past, these updates were blasted out by businesses with minimal follow-up or analysis. Technology, however, has caught up.
Social media management suites now enable monitoring the lifecycle of social messages in intimate detail, tracking everything from retweets, Likes and mentions to click-throughs and on-site conversions. At minimal cost, in other words, brands can field test which of their messages resonate with their audience and which fall flat, backing that up with hard data.
This is where convergence enters the picture. When a message proves a winner, its reach can be amplified--instantly--by tapping into the new breed of paid social ads. The idea is to “double and triple down on content that’s resonating to reach a broader audience,” explains social business analyst Jeremiah Owyang .
The right tweet, for instance, can be promoted. For a price, Twitter will push it into the timelines of users to whom the message is, algorithmically speaking, relevant. Promoted tweets can be targeted by keywords, geography, and mobile operating system. Brands can even target to 350 different user interest categories , everything from dogs to Bollywood and animation. A cost is only incurred when users actually retweet, reply, click, or favorite.
The mechanics may be a bit dry, but this kind of precision messaging represents a marketing holy grail. With converged marketing, owned messages are battle-tested and analyzed before any ad dollars are spent. The best of the bunch are then micro-targeted based on the interests, geographies, and even phones of individual users.
This process is only getting more streamlined. The same social media management systems that currently manage message publishing and analytics are getting into the ad game. Using a single tool, tweets and posts can be composed and scheduled; results can be analyzed for impact and ROI; then with a click that same content can be amplified as a Promoted Tweet or Sponsored Story (Disclosure: My own company, HootSuite , offers these features). Owned content becomes paid content, and a good deal of the guesswork in media buys is taken out of the equation.
The alternative isn’t pretty. “As consumers become increasingly mobile, paid/owned/earned convergence will intensify,” notes a cautionary new report from Altimeter , the closely watched digital marketing analysts. “Companies that don’t prepare for this convergence now in digital channels will be at a marked disadvantage.”
The same might be said for presidential candidates. Not to be outdone by Romney, the Obama campaign itself has doubled down on paid social ads. Recently, Twitter users searching for the terms Paul Ryan and Medicare were directed to a Promoted Tweet  from President Obama’s account: “Romney-Ryan: The Go Back team with the same top-down economic ideas that crashed our economy." Fueled by a new breed of paid social ads, the campaign for the hearts and votes of Twitter nation seems to be heating up.
[Image: Orla  via Shutterstock]