Bad News Could Drive Marketers Away From Twitter

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There may be a double-edged sword when it comes to social media marketing.

Marketers can target Twitter users in real-time based on keywords found in tweets, but what if those terms are negative and focused on terror?

Twitter also allows advertisers to insert a message atop its list of nine trending topics in a spot called the "promoted trend." This digital billboard sits alongside users' streams on its site and mobile application, and costs $200,000 a day in the United States, according to a source in the advertising industry. If those nine topics reflect bad news, does a brand decide not to shell out the cash?

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In the 38 days leading up to the Boston Marathon bombings, Twitter sold 29 promoted trends, according to tracking by CNBC, for a success rate of 76.3%. In the week following the Boston Marathon bombings, Twitter did not feature a single paid advertiser's promoted trend. (Aside for a promoted trend given to the city of Boston free of charge and Twitter's promotion of its own #music application, the advertising spot sat vacant.)

Did advertisers choose to stay away from displaying promoted trends and promoted tweets when it would be viewed alongside and within a constant stream of tweets pertaining to the marathon bombings? Or did Twitter black out the dates and not offer the week entirely?

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Twitter declined to comment when asked, as did Progressive, the first company to take out a promoted trend following the bombings. The auto-insurance company's ad – a hashtag #RateSuckers – hit Twitter at 6am ET this past Monday, nearly a full week after the terror attacks in Boston.

"We made the decision on behalf of our clients to immediately pause all planned posts and native ads on both the Monday of the bombings and early in the morning when the manhunt began," said Jason Stein, founder and president of the social media agency Laundry Service. "Of course, we immediately informed all clients - and they were adamant proponents of this and glad that we acted so quickly."

Why did the social media agency pause all promoted tweets?

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"We weren't thinking about traffic or association," said Stein. "We paused them because they weren't relevant. No one cares that a big liquor company has an event at a film festival in New York City. No one cares that a big technology company has a chip in a new laptop. Twitter is all about what's happening now. If you're forcing your posts into people's feed during a terrorist attack, you come off as egocentric and out of touch."

The advertising world is no stranger to negative association. Newspapers often take requests from marketers to have their ad removed from the front page when horrific news is shared there. The ad can then be found deeper in the paper where it's juxtaposed with better news.

It's apparent that when bad news is afloat, negative association and a potential lack of interest from Twitter users in a brand's messaging could drive marketers away from the platform. And when Twitter is serving up just a single promoted trend per day, there is no page two to rely on.

— Written by CNBC's Eli Langer. Follow him on Twitter at @EliLanger.