Chirpify's Chris Teso
Chirpify's Chris Teso

Chris Teso, an ad guy relocated from Boston to Portland, spotted opportunity where some might dread to look: stuff his relatives sold online.

“They were active on Etsy and Craigslist,” he recalls, “and when they posted something for sale, they’d jump on social media to promote it. I thought, what if you could combine the two? Wrap the listing and the payment mechanism together, all in 140 characters or less?”

The result: Chirpify, Teso’s fast-growing start-up, which employs 19 in 5,000 square feet of airy, raw-walled space in downtown’s Loyalty Building. Launched in 2011, Chirpify sells a way of using Twitter (and other social media) it calls “actiontags.” Actiontags combine two different hashtags—that one-keystroke method for organizing online conversations—to create instant monetary transactions.

A hypothetical example: you see a TV ad for your favorite charity, along with a pitch: To give $5, simply tweet both “#donate” and “#savetheunicorns.” (Remember: hypothetical.) Chirpify monitors Twitter for this combination. If the tweeting customer has done business via Chirpify before, the company’s automated system already has his or her payment data, and the donation happens instantly. If not, the customer receives a reply tweet linking to a secure payment site. 

After starting with the small-scale e-commerce that originally inspired Teso, Chirpify has moved on to devise and run actiontag campaigns for big-league clients. Adidas used Chirpify to sell limited-edition soccer gear; MasterCard deployed actiontags in its cancer research fundraising initiative. Other clients so far range from the Portland fashion brand Wildfang to Lady Gaga and Green Day.

To the 40-year-old Teso, Chirpify’s concept offers several selling points. “You get instant revenue, and you get data,” he says. “We can learn, for example, that a particular person on Twitter is interested in a Trail Blazers ticket giveaway. Amazon doesn’t have that—they don’t have social data. The social networks don’t have it—they don’t see e-commerce. We have both.”

Chirpify’s new idea could be the next evolution of the hashtag, a communication tool that has gone from inexplicable to universal in just a few years. “Brands are using hashtags the way they used to use URLs,” Teso says. “Now they need to connect what they’re doing on social media directly to the consumer. When we show them how, their minds are blown, because we provide instant results.” 

The concept also taps into a few new-ish quirks of consumer behavior, particularly the “second screen” phenomenon. Basically, people no longer simply watch TV. While they consume media, modern viewers produce their own content, tweeting and Facebooking on their laptops or mobile devices, responding in real time to the content they see—under the appropriate hashtags, of course. Chirpify offers a method for turning that behavior into action (and money).

What next? Teso says the company held tentative talks with both the Obama and Romney campaigns before the 2012 election, and three congressional candidates have used the service. Come 2016, America could face a new campaign-fundraising choice: #elect #her (or #him).