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Can the Twitterati help sell your soda pop?

Marketers are pouncing on the potential influence of active Twitter users to talk about their brands. The path to profit, however, is less clear.

One exuberant guest at the Twitter-centric Mountain Dew taste test party, in a photo originally posted to TwitPic. Damien Basile,

NEW YORK--On a Monday night earlier this month, the projection screen hanging on the wall of a bowling alley in Brooklyn's bar-heavy Williamsburg neighborhood was displaying neither strikes nor scores, but columns of the Twitter client TweetDeck.

More specifically, they were streams of Twitter search queries for a number of terms that would make little sense without context, like replies to the account @mtn_dew and occurrences of the hashtag #newdietdew. That's because PepsiCo, parent company of the Mountain Dew soda brand, had rented out the bowling alley to throw a "taste test" party for its new "Ultraviolet" diet soda. And the guest list had been amassed not for its red-carpet potential, but Twitter influence.

Broadcasting to anywhere from between a few hundred to a few thousand Twitter followers, party attendees exclaimed that Mountain Dew Ultraviolet was "truly the king of sodas," "like drinking a rainbow...everybody knows the best part is the purple," and "THE summer cocktail mixer of '09." There was an incentive, too: a few tweets containing the designated hashtag would be randomly selected to win prizes, like an HDTV or a casino weekend package.

"Can I still win if I hate it?" someone in the audience muttered as PepsiCo digital marketing execs explained the tactics of the contest.

It ended up working out pretty well, with a Twitter search for #newdietdew revealing a surprising lack of negative responses to the taste test (which may or may not have to do with the fact that the new flavor was mixed with vodka that night). And it's a tantalizing strategy, given Twitter's status as the sexy digital app of the moment.

But though there seems to be no question these Twitter-marketing events can generate buzz, like Twitter itself, it's not quite as clear how the buzz translates into dollar signs. Running this kind of Twitter marketing campaign usually requires acknowledging that your only clear result may be that a handful of the Web's cool kids will be talking about your brand--at least momentarily.

"(The bowling alley taste test) was a great example of an event that was a mixture of social media influencers and also the organic community that has built up around the product," said Stephanie Agresta, global director of digital strategy and social media at public relations firm Porter Novelli, which put together the event. Aside from semi-prominent Twitterers, the event was filled with young and trendy-looking locals who'd RSVP'd through PepsiCo's Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts. Did they look like they were having fun? Absolutely.

"In our day and age, our brands, our products are part of our community. They live with us in social networks," Agresta said. But the impact on sales of Ultraviolet Mountain Dew, if any, is going to be difficult to measure. Being regarded by digital-media aficionados as a brand that "gets" Twitter doesn't necessarily help drive up profits.

Giveaways and promotions for bloggers are nothing new, and in fact have earned the scrutiny of the Federal Trade Commission over how much disclosure is required when a blog post has been spurred by a monetary incentive. But it's more recent that marketers have started targeting individuals for their prominent Twitter followings, or in a riskier move, getting ordinary users of the microblogging service to spread a brand's account user name or hashtag en masse. Often, there's no incentive other than an invitation to a party or a long shot at winning a prize. And unlike, say, Dell's successful Twitter-only promotions or JetBlue's tweeted fire sales, there's not a concrete sale attached.

A 'whole lot of noise'
There's also the problem of crowd control. Using tweets as free advertising first really popped into the mainstream marketing industry in March, when candy brand Skittles replaced its entire home page with the Twitter search query for "skittles." It didn't last long, particularly when people realized they could display obscene messages on just by attaching the word "Skittles." And while it was a momentary sensation on the Web, it was less clear as to whether it actually did much in the way of marketing success.

"You can use Bitly-type links that have specifics and analytics baked in," suggested Laura Fitton, who advises companies on Twitter strategies at Pistachio Consulting, "(but) you need to have a pretty clear business goal to know whether it worked...Were you trying to raise brand awareness? Were you trying to get a certain amount of traffic to a certain page? You have to be measuring the actual business role you were trying to get done."

Success from Twitter buzz, especially when it involves brand loyalty from influential users, requires a continual "conversation"--and that can make results even more difficult to quantify. That's because even if people are tweeting, the Twittering masses can't always be counted on to listen.

"I think the 'influencer' model gets tempered on Twitter because the message is just as important a role in whether a message propagates," Fitton explained. Prominent Twitter users, she said, "are saying 20 to 60 things a day. Not every message takes off."

It's more reliable when you're dealing, of course, with the iPhone-toting hipsters who made up the crowd at the Mountain Dew party earlier this month. Not only do Twitter's uber-chatty twentysomethings want everyone to know exactly what they're doing at the trendiest bowling alley in Brooklyn's trendiest neighborhood, but their friends will probably listen--they, after all, want to know what's going on.

"People want to share what's going on with their lives, with their friends and family, and especially in the world we live in and the generation which this product is geared toward," Stephanie Agresta said. "Millennials, especially, feel that they live an interconnected life and that their lives are always on display."

And savvy brands have found that even if profits aren't clear-cut, they can use that Twitter buzz to keep up a loyal following--even with a small base--rather than to broadcast a brand's hashtag all over the Web and hope for profits. Take Bonobos, an upstart menswear line based in New York, which has been using its Twitter account to ask a "question of the day" pertaining to everything from what to name a new style of pants to which colors a Bonobos polo shirt should be sold in. Throughout the month of July, it held a campaign called "Tweet for Trunks," in which every day a random user who'd tweeted the #bonobos hashtag in response to a question would be awarded a free pair of swim trunks. It led to "a little bit" of an increase in traffic and sales, CEO Andy Dunn estimated.

But Dunn told CNET News that he's generally skeptical of social-media marketing. "There's no competitive advantage to it, everyone has access to it, and there's a whole lot of noise," he said. Where he sees the most potential in harnessing Twitter for Bonobos, which retails exclusively online and targets trendy men their 20s and 30s, is in how he can invite customers into the business process. "What I see from our customer base is just a real desire to participate in what we do," he said, adding that his strategy was inspired in part by ultratransparent, Twitter-savvy retailer Zappos. "We're going to have a real product development feedback loop."

As for the raw Twitter hype machine, Dunn said, that's overrated.

"Are we really even interested in people who just want to follow us to get a free pair of swim trunks?"