What might not be as apparent to anyone but the most diehard users at this point is how Twitter has evolved in the past year from a service that subsisted entirely on strings of text no more than 140 characters long to more of a multimedia mix. And that has significant implications not just for Twitter and its users, but for the media business itself.
Video is becoming a bigger part of the Twitter experience. And that’s not considering just Vine, the user-generated 6-second loops that became part of the service in January. Six seconds is also the timespan allotted marketers in another Twitter video initiative called Amplify, which has enabled more than 30 media companies to generate revenue from ads attached to longer clips of content embedded in tweets.
Yet another form of video that will be coming to more and more Twitter feeds is TV Ad Targeting, a clever tool the company took out of beta last week that identifies someone who tweets about a show as likely to have just seen a commercial, and streams to them an accompanying digital promotion.
It’s an integral part of a push to generate ad revenues for a company that, while currently valued at around $10 billion, was feared not to have a workable business model when it first burst on the scene seven years ago.
President of global revenue Adam Bain (pictured above) has become the force behind that monetization momentum since leaving News Corp. in 2010 to join Twitter. But he’s careful not to be seen as an interloper in the media business.
“We think everyone else in digital has come to market to disrupt the TV business,” Bain said. “Twitter has come to market with something that is helpful to the TV business.”
But the company’s video makeover isn’t just about marketing; Twitter is also looking a lot like a venue for programming: Several innovative new episodic shortform series have used Twitter as a distribution platform in recent months.
If this newfangled Twittervision finds traction — and that’s far from assured — it could change not only our understanding of entertainment but also Twitter itself. A company self-styled as the pre-eminent second-screen adjunct to TV suddenly looks a lot like the first screen, too.
“What it tells me is that Twitter is going to be a player in video distribution,” said Erik Flannigan, executive VP of multiplatform strategy and development at Viacom Entertainment Group, home to megabrands including MTV and Comedy Central. “There is room in the marketplace.”
The entertainment industry already knows the power of Twitter. The global social-media platform allows its more than 200 million users a direct connection to the people and properties associated with the content they love. Fans can bond with each other over that content, their communication doubling as free marketing.
Where Twitter has differentiated itself from rivals like Facebook is in being the go-to platform for sharing experiences in real time — particularly live TV programming. No wonder Twitter’s signature hashtags seem to adorn just about every program on the air.
But that’s not where the company’s showbiz impact ends.
Its pitch to the TV industry is that it represents the best place to capture the conversation about programming, which makes for a natural partnership. As Bain puts it, Twitter is a “force multiplier” for that conversation, generating an echo effect that lures others on the platform to sample on air what everyone else is talking about in real time.
Twitter has demonstrated its power as a global water cooler time and again, most recently earlier this month with its ability to take a Syfy movie with little pre-awareness, “Sharknado,” and turn it into a minor sensation quite literally overnight. Midyear strategic partnerships with ad behemoths Starcom and WPP, not to mention an alliance with Nielsen that will yield a new measurement of audience engagement, is all the proof you need that Twitter has gotten the attention of every entity in the TV ecosystem that matters.
Even as the TV industry gets better at providing more post-live viewing options via VOD, the reality hasn’t changed that most revenue is made in that first window of advertising. So there’s renewed need to establish a differentiated value-add to live TV.
For Twitter, the advertising opportunity has come in an area that skeptics early on thought was inviolate territory: inside the stream of tweets from each user’s followers. Bain, 39, has built a portfolio of “promoted” opportunities targeting individual tweets or accounts that allow marketers to tap Twitter’s highly engaged base of users, particularly on the mobile platform.
While Twitter has always been an effective springboard for TV, the platform previously strictly sent users to the TV set or to a link in another browser or app via retweet. That changed in June 2012, with the introduction of Twitter Cards, which essentially expanded a space once restricted to 140 characters to accommodate anything from a still photo to a video player — all without leaving Twitter.
“Twitter Cards was the first evolution of the platform where we saw people moving new types of content through,” said Bain, who mastered the art of digital ad sales while still at News Corp.’s Fox Audience Network, where he was responsible for driving revenues at properties including MySpace.
So far, one of the ways Cards has gotten the most exposure has come via vid looper Vine, an app Twitter acquired last October for $30 million. Vine has amassed 13 million users to date.
But even though it is still early in the game for a new video content format, Vine hasn’t shown much sign of being a bona fide sensation as a purely social form of expression. Its commercial usage has been limited as well, though there have been studios and TV networks that have attempted to use it for “tweasers” — Twitter teasers — like the first glimpse of “Wolverine” that came from 20th Century Fox months before its release in theaters this past weekend.
There’s been some interesting experimentation in harnessing Vine to create shortform material, narrative or otherwise. But for the most part, Vine’s exploitation has been a lot like a video version of Instagram: celebrities use it as yet another implement in the social toolbox to build followings.
Instagram, which is owned by Twitter rival Facebook, could also prove an impediment to Vine’s growth: Instagram Video, a 15-second videoclip that doesn’t loop, launched just last month and has been growing fast.
For Twitter, Cards also paved the way for Amplify. Twitter first tested the initiative with ESPN last December during telecasts of BCS college football games. Thirty-second game highlights were targeted at sports fans in the Twittersphere just moments after they occurred in real time as a means of drawing more viewers from that segment of the audience most interested in the content, as well as to retain those already watching.
Amplify worked well enough that one clip in particular drew 9 million views. Both ESPN and Twitter were able to monetize the clip by getting Ford to pay for a six-second promo attached to it.
Twitter began bringing together other networks and advertisers for Amplify campaigns, including Turner Broadcasting with AT&T and Coke Zero for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament; and with Sprint, Taco Bell and Sony Pictures for NBA postseason games.
Sports was an ideal testing ground because of its particularly rabid following on Twitter. But in May, Twitter announced an expansion of Amplify that encompasses many more partners beyond sports and TV (disclaimer: Variety parent company PMC is one of those partners). Fox, Weather Channel and Fuse were among the networks putting Amplify to the test outside sports.
“The first movers were really around replays and you-gotta-see-this-type moments inside of the program,” Bain said. “The next set will show things that didn’t get enough time on air, but we can use the time on Twitter.”
To wit, BBC America used Amplify for the season premiere of “Top Gear,” seeding Twitter with all sorts of video extras synched to the show’s airing but not available in the broadcast itself.
Amplify is only going to get more commonplace come fall, as networks including Fox and Comedy Central harness it to drive big-event programming, from new series launches to the MTV Awards.
With Amplify, advertisers get a one-stop shop via which they can access both the event drawing mass eyeballs and the platform where the conversation about the event is taking place. “It’s probably the best ad sales opportunity to date to answer the question of clients and agencies who want to be involved in the social buzz around the shows,” said Viacom’s Flannigan. “Advertisers are looking to those who can deliver pay media and earned media.”
Twitter’s TV Ad Targeting feature takes Amplify a step further by making Twitter a continuation of a commercial. Through Bluefin Labs, a social-media tracking firm it acquired last year, Twitter is able to cross-index data on the airtime of a given ad with users who tweet about the show that contains that ad. That audience segment can then be targeted with promoted tweets that essentially extend the commercial they likely saw with additional opportunities to engage with the brand, including video.
Having introduced TV Ad Targeting in beta mode in May, last week Twitter touted engagement metrics that should help encourage more advertisers to sign on. Among the first brands to experiment included Jaguar, Samsung and Holiday Inn.
But TV isn’t just coming to Twitter; Twitter has been going to TV. In April, music-oriented cable network Fuse and chewing gum brand Trident partnered with the company on “Trending 10,” a TV series that lists the top stories in the music world each day based on Twitter data that monitors which subjects are driving the most conversation on the social platform. In addition to a daily perch on Fuse, “Trending” also runs original short-form content at @T10.
Comedy Central also has gotten creative with Twitter, featuring a five-day #Comedyfest that brought together comedians who took their acts to the social giant in a variety of ways, including videoclips and, in one case, a live stream of a panel discussion featuring Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.
While such experiments have been notable, they have essentially represented cases of established TV brands breaking off some crumbs from their on-air programming to sprinkle on Twitter. Where the game-changer comes in is with Twitter playing host to embedded content entirely native to the platform.
@EpicEDM features videos of with luminaries of the electronic dance music scene. While still in beta mode, its programming is sprinkled with curated news on the latest from the celebrity DJs who are particularly well entrenched on Twitter, aiming the content at a smartly targeted niche.
“If you think back to the launch of hip-hop, and MTV being that cultural epicenter, EDM is now taking the pop culture stage, and Twitter is the core of where that activity is,” said Dan Goodman, founder of Believe Entertainment Group, which finances and produces @EpicEDM.
Goodman is no neophyte when it comes to launching programming on new digital platforms; he brought YouTube its first high-profile branded entertainment play in 2008, with “Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy.” Since starting Believe, he’s continued to be a pioneer programmer for the platform, backing projects with LeBron James and Tiesto, an EDM star who once broadcast a concert entirely on Twitter, which sparked the idea for trying a series set within the platform.
@EpicEDM represents the first studio-based programming effort on Twitter, though some marketers made branded-entertainment content native to the platform last year, including a Pepsi concert series via Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine, and a Verizon-backed effort, #StraysTakes featuring jock-turned-broadcaster Michael Strahan.
In the case of @EpicEDM, Twitter didn’t license the content but did provide promotional support, audience data, strategic guidance and technical assistance. It also let BEG lead ad-sales efforts, but did its own selling, too, combining the two inventories for a mix of promoted tweets, prerolls, ad units, skins and product integrations. @EpicEDM has yet to reveal its sponsors or its budget, which is believed to be a low-seven-figure number.
Another pioneer in Twitter-native programming is the Chernin Group, which launched @Summerbreak in June, the same week @EpicEDM publicized its own launch. @SummerBreak also has an MTV influence, but it’s less “Yo! MTV Raps” than “The Hills”: It’s an unscripted narrative that follows the lives of absurdly attractive high school graduates over the summer before they go off to college. @SummerBreak counts AT&T as a sponsor and primary funder.
Peter Chernin is about as illustrious as a digital entertainment pedigree gets, between his TV and film deals and his connections to new media forces like Twitter, where he sits on the board, and investments in Pandora and Tumblr.
There are some interesting contrasts between the two projects: While @SummerBreak gambles on the fresh-faced appeal of unknown teenagers, @EpicEDM leverages the reputations of famous DJs who are well entrenched on Twitter. That said, the DJs aren’t active participants in @EpicEDM, while @SummerBreak is able to mine the lives of its principals on a near 24/7 basis.
Another key difference: While @EpicEDM is largely contained to Twitter — although YouTube is the one hosting the videos — @SummerBreak is a more multifaceted approach that seems to rely on Instagram as much as it does Twitter. YouTube and Tumblr are also incorporated. Time will tell whether restricting content to Twitter reduces the complexity of the presentation or if spreading the content across multiple platforms is a better fit for being everywhere the young target audience is.
At this beta stage, neither property has particularly sizable audiences. But with further experimentation, it’s easy to see how they could pave the way for a new breed of content so starkly different than what TV or film offers that its potential is worth noting.
Typical entertainment distribution involves a one-to-many model that exists in a linear format at a particular time. Twittervision explodes that storytelling convention, splintering narrative across multiple feeds on multiple platforms — as @Summerbreak does — that users can navigate as they choose when they choose. Video can be intertwined with photos and text. It’s not entirely different from the model of so-called alternative reality games, but it is rooted on the social network instead of an array of websites.
“I call it ‘disembodied media,’ ” said Mark Ghuneim, founder and CEO of social media tracking service Trendrr. “It’s a disembodied TV show taking place in disparate parts, times, and sources. It’s crazy in a great way.”
Just who the storyteller is and who the consumer is also get blurred in this equation. Imagine a teen character on @SummerBreak reaching out to her fans in real time to get their advice on whether she should break up with her boyfriend. How much more powerful could that be than the customary TV version of having that breakup occur in a vaccuum, get edited, put in a can for months and then trotted out?
Goodman sees @EpicEDM evolving beyond its current format to incorporate content from users themselves, like offering an EDM concert in which part of the event would be streaming from cameras in the audience. “Consumers will help steer the ship,” he said. “The last thing we’ll do is step in between them and the content.”
Interactive or participatory TV has been on the margins of the business for so long that it seems like it’s never going to happen. But Twitter may be just the soil where a long-delayed germination could actually take root. Let’s not forget that the average member of any audience has a device in their pocket capable of transmitting quality video — how can that not disrupt the traditional understanding of what programming is?
For Bain, audiences’ most innovative Twitter-based contributions to traditional storytelling exist in the data they provide. Typical production cycles on narrative-driven programming limit how much producers can incorporate audience behavior into planning the countless decisions that go into refining the creative approach.
“Whether it’s ‘Trending 10,’ @Summerbreak or @EpicEDM, all of these examples are great ways of gathering data from the community and updating in real time,” said Bain.
But should these projects take off, you have to ask whether Twitter will be content to simply take a backseat while content businesses are built on its platform. Surely at some point, logic might dictate, Twitter is going to pull a Google and invest in programming, whether by revenue-sharing, financing or partial ownership.
Cue the is-it-a-media-company-or-technology-company debate that seems irrelevantly academic at this point, exhausted already perhaps by Google, which toed that blurred line for so long. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is occasionally caught playing the same coy semantic game Google’s Eric Schmidt used to play on this front, and no one seems to care anymore.
But as Twitter becomes more videocentric on its own platform, its ability to drive traffic to TV is going to make less sense when the company can concentrate that promotional firepower on itself with a new style of programming that old media can’t execute. Why be a companion to broadcasters when you can be a broadcaster yourself?
Nevertheless, Bain dismissed such ambition, also nixing the notion that Twitter’s ultimate goal is to keep users on any platform for as long as possible. “It’s absolutely not our model,” he said. “That’s an old way of monetizing properties.”
As Bain explained, Twitter’s value is somewhat counterintuitively derived from being the starting point that takes users to other content experiences, even if they are not on Twitter itself. To wit, Twitter Cards are typically embedded with either video players controlled by content partners or by mobile apps controlled by external partners.
Not only does Bain see Twitter as the endpoint of content distribution, but his hope is that the company will be able to participate in revenues from content that germinates on Twitter but is then sold to TV.
Of course, Twitter doesn’t necessarily have to play a zero-sum game here; it can be a friend to the TV biz while experimenting with distribution in its own right. Which is why Amplify, according to Ghuneim, splits the difference.
“I think these video alternatives Twitter is providing are a smart middle ground between promotional platform and destination,” he said. “It’s a nice bridge to the content creators to create mutually valuable inventory.”
The timing of a Twitter video push could be fortuitous. The lopsided balance of power between content owners and YouTube is starting to teeter a bit amid rumblings of the need for a competitor to the 800-pound gorilla of online video. Had Yahoo not been blocked in its bid for DailyMotion by French regulators, it might have been that entity. Now there’s rumor of at least one other company, Maker Studios, attempting to launch a YouTube rival, too. The fate of Hulu could also alter the complexion of this market.
“There is one giant player in that space at the moment for commercial videos, which is YouTube,” Flannigan said. “But there is room for another mass-reach player to deliver video to a targeted audience.”
Curiously, one powerhouse to disregard from this discussion is a company that would appear to be the most natural rival for Twitter: Facebook. Last week, a Trendrr study found that Facebook has five times more TV-related activity than Twitter, which may have something to do with the fact Facebook is five times as big as Twitter. Its massive global footprint in social media would seem to make it ideally suited to extend into video distribution.
But Facebook seems to be staying out of the fray. After some mild experimentation with movie and TV distribution last year, all signals are that CEO Mark Zuckerberg is fine with limiting his company’s role in media to content discovery. Given the sheer volume of video consumption that already takes place on Facebook, that’s an inscrutable strategic decision, and one that has opened an opportunity for Twitter.
Where Twitter finds itself today is all the more remarkable considering the platform was not devised to have anything to do with TV. What the company does next may have less to do with its overseers than its users, according to Deb Roy, chief media scientist at Twitter. “Twitter, quite frankly, was not designed with the second screen in mind,” he said. “TV was an audience-driven movement for which Twitter was co-opted.”
Perhaps Twitter can evolve to be more than just a place for clips; consumption of full-length programming could be possible, perhaps as a standalone service like Netflix or as an authentication portal in concert with the pay TV industry’s TV Everywhere initiative. It wouldn’t even be unprecedented; last September Fox used Twitter to drive sampling of an entire episode of sitcom “Raising Hope.”
Twitter’s leaders may have bigger ambitions. In keeping with the company’s emphasis on being the go-to platform to collectively share experiences in real time, Costolo hinted, at a recent appearance at the Brookings Institute in Washington D.C., that Twitter is testing a feature that would allow users to essentially “replay” live events and pinpoint peak moments that can be viewed if missed the first time around.
It’s all heady stuff that may never see the light of day. Neither @EpicEDM nor @SummerBreak might work either. Like a lot of innovative initiatives, they may be remembered better for the productions for which they paved the way. Perhaps there is some amateur-created social equivalent of Lonelygirl15 that will learn from their examples and burst onto the scene with the kind of fervid creativity that the established-media partners of Twitter find it hard to summon in a way that’s truly organic to the platform.
Maybe even that won’t ever happen, because entertainment is such a fundamentally simple, passive experience that no media innovation can change its DNA. But if the model is mutable, Twitter is as well poised as anyone to own it. To just let content play without capitalizing on the platform’s inherent interactivity would miss the point of being on Twitter in the first place.
“Can the Chernin project and @EpicEDM get to the scale they need on Twitter alone? That’s debatable at this point,” Flannigan said. “That’s one of those holy grail ideas we’ve all chased for a while. Someone is going to crack that code and hit it out of the park, but it’s a tricky thing to do.”