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Vancouver company conducts unpopular Twitter experiment

Vancouver-based HootSuite Media, Inc. is helping Twitter conduct an unpopular experiment: sprinkling ads between the tweets users are reading.

And as a result, @HootSuite is catching as much flak as @Twitter for subjecting users to unwanted advertising.

Advertisers like Virgin America, Sesame Street and Lionsgate have started sending out "promoted tweets" but only users of HootSuite - a full-featured web app that helps manage a Twitter feed and other social networking accounts - are currently seeing those ads.

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Partnering in the advertising experiment came after "basically proving ourselves" to Twitter that "we're able to execute and have a good solid user base to work with," HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes said in an interview Tuesday.

But he admitted the move is not without risk, and HootSuite users were quick to voice their displeasure with the ads.

"Really not happy with the ads in my timeline. Leaving #hootsuite tout-suite!" wrote user Diddybears.

"Today I've noticed for the 1st time promoted ads via @HootSuite. Already annoyed. Stupid ads!" tweeted Marie-Lynne.

Holmes acknowledged the company has been busy responding to comments about the new ads, although he said so far, there's been no real backlash from users, which include high-profile accounts associated with U.S. President Barack Obama, the White House, Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales, Kim Kardashian and Tyra Banks.

"In terms of migration (of users to HootSuite competitors) I'm not concerned about that," Mr. Holmes said.

"We, of course, are keeping tabs on it because we want to make sure it's not a huge issue for people but we haven't seen that. Considering we have about (673,000) followers on our Twitter account and over 900,000 users we're not seeing a crazy uproar over this.

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"It's a kind of small group at this point that are expressing issues and we're talking with them and adjusting with Twitter on that. But it's been overall quite a good response."

In April, Twitter first began introducing ads into search results and in June, starting selling ads in its trending topics section. It's now also allowing sponsorship of hashtags, with the Washington Post snagging the rights to #election to coincide with Tuesday's U.S. election coverage.

In a blog post, Twitter said it would take a "deliberate and thoughtful approach" to selling advertising so they would be "useful and authentic to the Twitter experience."

Ottawa-based user Lauren Newby said the promoted tweets that appeared in her account were relevant to her background in marketing, but she still didn't appreciate reading them.

"I thought the whole idea of Twitter was I follow who I want to follow because that's what I'm interested in," she said in an interview.

"I'm in advertising, I understand it, but I really liked Twitter being free of that, to have that choice of whether you wanted to follow advertising or the people speaking about things you're interested in."

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But Mr. Holmes thinks users will adapt to the advertising as Twitter fine-tunes its approach.

"We're helping Twitter adjust their ad units, they're learning this and experimenting with this, and at the end of the day, we're going to see what people like, what they hate and adjust to it," he said.

"I think this is a great move for them, they have to get to a business (and make money)."

HootSuite is building revenue by selling a subscription-based premium version of its site, which includes the ability to strip out advertising. Mr. Holmes said web companies have to find a way to make money if they want to have any longevity.

"We're proving a business model for what we're doing and at the end of the day, our product is going to be around for people to keep using for a long time," he said.

"The other (Twitter applications) out there don't have a business model other than fundraising and that may work for a while, but at some point businesses have to prove viability."

Twitter user Marco Campana said he recognizes that ads "are the current 'cost' of my use of free online products and services." But he still doesn't like them.

"While I certainly don't have answers about how best to monetize these services ... I find it unfortunately unimaginative that the Silicon Valley wunderkinds can't come up with other options and just copy each other with outdated models of advertising," he wrote in an email.

Newby said Twitter runs the risk of losing users if it takes its advertising efforts too far.

"I feel like it is going to break into that space at some point on a larger scale but anything we can do to slow it and impede it (is a good thing)," she said.

"Or else Twitter is just going to become something else where advertising is too prevalent and people are going to move on to something else."

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