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Introducing Twitter payola: Stop advertising, and lose your Verified badge; UPDATE: Twitter admits it was a mistake

With a new payment service, accounts will lose their Verified status if they stop advertising on Twitter.

Twitter’s verification process has always been shrouded in mystery. The site has played its cards incredibly close to its chest when it comes to explaining how one goes about obtaining the elusive checkmark icon. Some recent developments – namely, the loss of our own little blue and white checkmark – has caused Digital Trends to ask some questions about the system of verification and its legitimacy. After noticing our blue and white checkmark was missing from Twitter, we visited the site’s verification sign up page to request getting the icon back. In response, we were told our verification request had been declined and received this brief message: 

“Twitter currently verifies government accounts, accounts at risk of identity confusion or impersonation, and a select number of business accounts for alpha testing.”

“…Please note: Twitter isn’t verifying business accounts yet unless they’re part of the alpha testing program. If you are part of the alpha testing program and your request was denied, please visit your business center page for more information.”

Looking for more reasoning still, we contacted Twitter and received further explanation:

“Verification is something we offer our active advertisers meeting the $5K/month minimum spend associated with our Platform Partnership.”

“…If you were to re-visit Promoted Products further down the road and were able to meet that $5K/month minimum, this verification would be reinstated.”

The moment that we stopped advertising with Twitter, the verification mark had vanished, so the chain of events now makes more sense. Other companies have dealt with the same issues at Twitter. Music and art site The Fader has a similar problem with account verification, which was covered by AdAge. And while coughing up the cash isn’t really an issue for our company, the strangeness and hush-hush surrounding how Twitter approaches this system has touched a nerve – and we aren’t the only ones who feel that way.

To that end, we have a few questions.

Q: What happens if you pay up and then take a break?

Welcome to the land of “what if.” So let’s say you are a business of some sort and you pay the $5K a month – actually, let’s say $10K, you really want that Twitter growth – and you get your Promoted Tweets, Promoted Account statuses, and (perhaps after request) your Verified Account badge. You enroll in this program for a year, racking up a bill of $120,000 in total for those 12 months.

Your Twitter reach is better, you have more followers, and you also have verified status. Now comes the new fiscal year, and you decide to take a different budget approach for your ad campaigns and you only want to pay Twitter every other month for this service. Your business has grown considerably, you’ve accrued a following, and you don’t necessarily need Promoted Tweets and the like as badly. Well the minute you fail to ante up that $5,000 for the month, you very well could be kissing your Verified Account badge goodbye.

Now it seems as it this is on a “case by case” basis, but the fact remains that nowhere does Twitter explain that this is a casualty of failing to abide by the incredibly narrow parameters of its advertising model. It’s just miserably unexplained, and that’s just about the last thing anyone wants from a platform they are spending money with. If during this hypothetical year of advertising with Twitter, your hypothetical business were to skyrocket to incredible fame and hundreds of thousands of followers, it’s possible Twitter wouldn’t revoke your verified status – but this ad hoc format is just ripe for complaints seeing as Twitter refuses to explain the matter anymore than that.

Q: When and why do you have to request the verified badge?

Because Twitter is so quiet about its verification platform, it’s difficult to know when or if you’re in the position to request the badge. Apparently, and according to sources outside Twitter, you get that status when you spend $5K a month with the company. But Twitter doesn’t tell you that. Nor does it just give you the badge. Only after you snoop around and find that the collective Internet deems it so and you request your badge from Twitter will you get the blue and white icon.

It’s like setting goals for employees that come with bonuses – only you don’t tell them that there’s a bonus or what it is. There might be plenty of other benefits from seeking and meeting those goals (in Twitter’s case, the promotion spending ad dollars there provides) but not mentioning that a certain amount gets you a verified badge seems downright deceitful. Which begs yet another question…

Q: Why doesn’t verified account information come from Twitter?

When we asked about our vanished verified status, we got an interesting message from our account rep at Twitter:

“We try to be as transparent as possible with our products and program. Our minimum spend requirement has been made public many times. You can check out this Adage article that was posted back in January. Again, if you wish to become an active advertiser again, verification would definitely be a part of that!”

Does anyone else find it strange that Twitter refers its advertisers and potential advertisers to an Adage article instead of its own Terms of Service or marketing FAQ? And that all of this information only came after the fact? The motivation for keeping such a tight lid on this whole mess does make some sense: Twitter doesn’t want people creating accounts with the focus of getting verified or trying to falsely get an account verified in order to impersonate someone.

But reveal the secret sauce or not, people have gamed the system. Last year, the fake Wendi Murdoch account infamously slipped through the cracks and someone pretending to be Rupert Murdoch’s wife went on a tweeting rampage. Twitter reacted quickly, but the faux pas once again called our attention to the verification system. And once again, as if on cue, Twitter refused to offer any insight.

Verified Accounts were introduced way back in 2009 to give those with clout a way to signify that yes, it’s really them. Here, in Twitter’s words, is why this is needed:

“Verification is currently used to established authenticity of identities on Twitter. The verified badge helps users discover high-quality sources of information and trust that a legitimate source is authoring the account’s Tweets.”

Twitter asks its users for a great deal of trust. It has repeatedly been at the center over issues regarding free speech, government censorship, and online privacy rights – and generally, I’m willing to say that Twitter’s risen to the occasion. But the unwillingness to be transparent when it comes to its verification process is unsettling, especially considering that by all accounts, the company believes we are who we say we are. Not to mention the fact that the blue and white icon means something now.

Q: How does Twitter decide who deserves verification?

For better or worse, we’ve given Twitter a lot of power. It’s where people turn to for official (or semi-official) statements from authorities, including politicians, musicians, entrepreneurs, celebrities… the list goes on and on. It’s been crucial to supporting global communication, and was incredibly important during the Middle Eastern uprising last year.

 So it stands to reason that we want to know who exactly our information is coming from, and that’s why the verified status symbol matters. It’s far too easy to impersonate someone using Twitter, and this tool is supposed to take away that power.

Twitter also serves as a communication tool for publications, and given that the site is a playground for parodies, it’s important that the real sites of authority are able to claim as much. This means, again, that verification matters. And Twitter knows it, and it’s wielding its power where it can. Our account rep ran down the list of how to get verification:

“One way to receive verification is if you are being impersonated (i.e. celebrity, politician, etc). The other is if you are an active advertiser. When you are running Promoted Products, verification is a value-add similar to analytics and Brand Pages. Digital Trends received verification as an active and engaged partner on our ad platform.  Since you are no longer advertising, you no longer have that value-add.”

However the notice we originally received about losing verified status said nothing of the sort (nor were we informed about this until after we pulled our Promoted Products campaign).

Twitter verification revoked

Nowhere in that message does it say anything about payment.

The company has something that some of its users want, and it plans to leverage that. Really, Twitter is ruling with an iron fist here, deciding who is famous enough not to pay and deserves verification, and what companies it can squeeze at least $15,000 out of. Twitter, you’ve convinced us of your inherent importance in the social sphere, which is why it’s confusing when you’re so cavalier with denoting who and what are authorities within your service – not to mention the fact that you’re willing to tie titles to price tags.

To summarize, it appears you need to spend a minimum of $15,000 ($5K over three months) in order to “buy” verified status from Twitter. Or you need to know someone who’s “in” with Twitter (read: spending ad dollars with them) who wants you or your business to get verified. Only Twitter won’t plainly say so and you aren’t guaranteed that notification from the site itself. After you’ve ponied up $15K, don’t expect a message alerting you that you’ve qualified for verified status. It might just show up or you might need to put in a request with your account manager. There are a lot of “mights” and “maybes” involved here – far too many for an ad platform that wants your money.

It’s a very “case by case” system, and it’s messy, disorganized, and untrustworthy. And now that Twitter wants to turn itself into a viable ad platform, it’s just not going to fly. You need to tell people what they get for their money. And you should do so before they pay up, not after they stop. Anything less than that is disingenuous.

Twitter’s verified account system should be trusted, transparent, and accessible. If it’s pay-based and celebrity-based, then so be it – but put that in writing. On your own site, preferably. 

[Note: Before publishing, we informed Twitter of the story and requested answers or comments to the questions you see above. As of press time, we received no reply.]

[UPDATE: 5/16/12] We just received the following email from Twitter, explaining what happened to our Verified Account status: 

“Over the past month, a small number of existing Twitter advertisers were transitioned to our recently-launched self-serve platform. In the process, the Verified badge for these accounts was removed in error. This week, we are restoring Verified status for all of these accounts. There have also been cases in which we removed badges for accounts who had previously advertised with Twitter. We are restoring Verified status to those accounts –including yours– this week as well; your account has been rebadged as Verified.”

Obviously this doesn’t quite line up with what our account manager originally told us, which to refresh your memory was: “Since you are no longer advertising, you no longer have that value-add [the verified badge].” 

But I’m willing to give Twitter the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to an evolving system, too many hands in the pot, and too little communication down the chain of command within the company — which Twitter seemed to note: 

“As we have said since we first introduced the Verified account process in 2009, deciding who and when to verify is a complicated issue. Our team is continually exploring ways in which to improve the verification process, in a way that works for people, companies & organizations on Twitter. We appreciate your raising the issue.”

If your Twitter account was also affected by the case of the missing verified badge, keep an eye out. It should be returning in the near future.