Twitter Begins Taking Ads From Starbucks, Best Buy, Virgin America—and You?

Promoted Tweets launched because Twitter-friendly companies are worried that their updates are getting lost almost as soon as they're posted, amid the site's 50 million, and counting, tweets per day. But average users care about getting their "message" out too. While Starbucks may pay $1 million to have a "Free Frappucinos today!" tweet promoted to everyone who searches for "coffee," there may also be 1 million Twitterers willing to pay $1 each to have their own tweets promoted to their followers.

Many—most—tweets are fleeting, but some cross a threshold of importance. A grandmother linking to a new album of baby pictures on Flickr; a garage band pushing details of a Friday-night gig; an author who wants to promote an appearance on a talk show—these are tweets that you don't want overlooked. Nobody would ever consider mounting an advertising campaign for these things. But if Twitter offers an extremely low-cost way to make a tweet just slightly more visible in the stream, it can both make a lot of money and offer an extremely valuable service to its members.

This is stuff you can expect to see Twitter's kinda-rival, Tumblr, experiment with soon as well: for a dollar, do you want to make this post "sticky" and stay near the top of your followers' feeds? For $2, do you want to display it for your followers' followers, too? For the price of a candy bar, your words don't get lost in the din.

By now, Internet users are comfortable with making payments online. Apple's iTunes paved some of the early way in persuading people to pay $1 for music they had been getting for free. Micropayments have become wildly popular in games like Farmville and Mafia Wars. And virtual gifts have been especially lucrative for Facebook, which may bring in $1 billion in revenue this year. Twitter can become a player in this multibillion-dollar industry overnight.

And again, this is all in addition to the big-dollar deals the site will make with blue-chip advertisers like Starbucks and Best Buy. Twitter has long been the butt of jokes for having no discernible way to make money. (Stephen Colbert: "I assume that 'Biz' in 'Biz Stone' does not stand for 'business model.' ") But with cautious, well-received first steps like this, the service could become a powerhouse.