Will Twitter’s Backgrounds Contain Ads?


by Mike O’Brien

On Monday, Twitter removed all custom background images from user profiles. Marketers are divided on whether or not this move means that the white space will eventually be ad space.

Earlier this week, Twitter removed users’ custom profile backgrounds, replacing them with a generic white background. Many users took to the platform to blast the “sterile” and “blinding” white, but could these blank slates mean something different for marketers?

Twitter hasn’t said much about the change. When asked about the new background, a company spokesperson simply said, “We’re removing background images from the home and notification timelines on the web for all users. Now, background images are only available where logged-in users will see them publicly (Tweet pages, list pages and collections pages.)” The spokesperson included a link to the “Customizing Your Design” page in Twitter’s support center, though it is unclear whether that means users’ backgrounds will sometimes be visible or will disappear entirely.

For some social media marketers, Twitter’s caginess adds to suspicions that the white will eventually be a backdrop for advertising, according to Jasmine Sandler, founder and chief executive (CEO) of Agent-cy.

“I think people will complain and then get used to it,” Sandler says. “However, the follow and website card advertising works well for Twitter, so I’m not sure if this will help or hurt their sales. If [the hypothetical ads] are done with a simple design, that would work best.”

The background change could also be chalked up to Twitter streamlining its appearance for mobile. According to April research from digital statistics portal Statista, Twitter’s mobile use has been steadily increasing. As of Q1 of this year, nearly 250 million of the platform’s 302 million users Tweet from mobile devices. Those statistics are likely another factor in the update, keeping Twitter feeds cleaner-looking for those using the platform on smaller screens. If the white space does indeed become ad space, Twitter will have more control over how busy those backgrounds appear on mobile.

Sandler points out that all of the top social networks have changed their image sizing over the last few years.

“Each network is trying to find the best user interface,” she says. “Not all, but most of these guys don’t want to invest in proper customer service. Making the UI more simple helps there.”

Other social media experts believe that banner advertising experiments on soical media are doomed to fail.

“It goes against everything the platform is trying to do, which is native and truly integrating into the user experience,” says Chris Tuff, director of business development and partnerships for Atlanta agency 22squared. “It’s like back in the day when Facebook was trying to find their way and had those Microsoft banner ads across the top. That’s not how you play in the new social spaces.”

Instead, Tuff thinks that Twitter should be focusing on user engagment through beefing up Twitter feeds and minimizing the importance of user profiles.

“No one really goes to other people’s profiles,” he adds. “You can spend as much time as you want making it pretty, but [Twitter is] about playing on the feed. This is an attempt to refocus the attention where it should be: making the feed more dynamic, really bringing the user in.”

Tuff thinks the blank space will help autoplay videos and the images in Promoted Tweets stand out more. He also thinks Twitter’s upcoming Project Lightning – which will include more images and videos from Vine and Periscope in trending topics – should help the site differentiate itself from competitors like Facebook and Snapchat.