Jesse Brown: How Twitter is finding ways to cash in on your TV Tweets
A new generation of TV viewers tune out the ads to tweet about what they’re watching, but Twitter is finding ways to make money on the conversations
When Kanye West hijacked Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, he may have permanently upset the balance between television and the Internet. The online reaction to the incident was instant and global. Viewers tweeted about the moment during the ad breaks. It might have been the birth of what is now known as the “second-screen” experience, wherein a new generation of TV viewers tune out commercials, engaging instead with friends through phones, tablets and laptops.
In the days that followed, the YouTube clip alone was viewed more than 20 million times. Twitter and Facebook were overrun with the “Imma let you finish” meme, and a YouTube clip surfaced of Obama calling Kanye a “jackass.” The number of people participating in the social media aftershock of the moment was larger than the audience for the awards broadcast itself. All of this surely raised the VMAs’ profile, but it also presented MTV with a new kind of problem: everyone was consuming and discussing their content, but they were unable to sell ads against it.
Four years later, MTV solved the problem. Or rather, Twitter solved it for them. Days before the VMAs last August, Twitter and MTV’s parent company, Viacom, established a partnership to sell ads to VMA sponsors through a program called Twitter Amplify, an online ad platform created to complement broadcast TV. If another shocking meme were to emerge from the awards show, MTV’s Twitter feeds would instantly clip and tweet it, slapping on a short commercial video beforehand. In essence, Twitter would help MTV pirate their own content before anyone else could.
Promising advertisers a viral video seemed arrogant. Viacom was not only predicting that lightning would strike twice in the same place, but also that they’d be able to capture it in a bottle. “We’re always pretty sure there’s going to be a moment, or many moments, like when Kanye busted up onstage,” said Dario Spina, a Viacom marketing VP.
And so there was. Miley Cyrus twerked, and the first online glimpse of the footage came from MTV itself. “There are no words,” tweeted @MTV. “Just watch.” Without leaving Twitter, viewers could click to view Miley’s pre-sold butt-grind, but only after a few seconds of a dancing Pepsi can. That tweet was the focal point of a social media storm that at its height generated over 300,000 tweets per minute, and then dominated discussions for weeks.
Gone is Twitter’s early rhetoric about becoming a people-powered global news service. Twitter the medium may indeed be just that, but Twitter the company is gearing up for an initial public offering within the year, and it must make money.
Last spring, Twitter opened up an office in Toronto, run by the former CBC executive Kirstine Stewart, known primarily for developing shows like Little Mosque on the Prairie and Battle of the Blades. When she jumped ship from public broadcasting, it looked like a maverick defection from old media to new. The truth is, Stewart didn’t switch from television to technology; Twitter switched from technology to TV.
Along with Amplify, Twitter is launching Ad Targeting, a program that lets advertisers supplement their television commercials with targeted paid tweets. It works like this: if you’re watching a broadcast of Mad Men and you tweet about it, Twitter, using location data, will instantly figure out which station you’re watching it on. From that, Twitter can determine which commercials you’ve been shown. If one of those advertisers is running a Twitter Ad Targeting campaign, your Twitter feed will suddenly contain a sponsored tweet linked to the TV ad you just watched (or the ad you just ignored because you were busy tweeting). The point is to give you no escape: if an advertiser wants the attention of a Mad Men viewer, they’ll get it on whichever screen that viewer is paying attention to.
The Twitter-TV tie-ins don’t end there. Nielsen, the TV ratings company, released a study suggesting that TV doesn’t just send people to Twitter; Twitter sends people to TV. When a show gets heavy Twitter buzz, its ratings improve. Naturally, Twitter has partnered with Nielsen to provide a new kind of TV ratings that measure a program’s social media impact.
The Internet might not recognize national boundaries, but TV advertising still does. Even when a Canadian company wants to run an ad during an American show, to be seen by Canadians it needs to buy the slot from a Canadian broadcaster. It is now Kirstine Stewart’s job to convince Canada’s famously risk-averse advertisers to take a chance on this newfangled technology.
It won’t be easy. In the U.S., Twitter has about 30 Amplify partners, including big brands like the NBA, which has already started selling ads against live game highlight clips. Meanwhile, as of late September, Twitter Canada had announced just two deals: one to co-sell ads with Shaw Media, and another with Bell. The Shaw deal will involve selling Amplify ads on clips of Shaw’s programming, which includes everything on Global plus specialty channels like HGTV and the Food Network. The Bell deal seems more tentative, an ambiguous team-up to measure how TV viewers engage with each other on Twitter.
By hitching its ride to broadcast TV, Twitter is betting on a medium that’s already on the endangered species list. For Twitter’s TV dreams to come true, viewers need to keep watching the same shows at the same time—something we’re doing less and less every year. The most recent CRTC figures for the conventional (or solely ad-supported) TV industry showed a staggering 85 per cent drop in pre-tax profits, from $151.6 million in 2011 to $22.9 million in 2012. Audiences are instead watching shows on Netflix and YouTube. We’re also streaming from iTunes, Amazon and a dozen other places, and many people are, of course, pirating. No matter where we watch, we’re skipping the ads whenever we can. Meanwhile, Amazon, Apple and Google are all working on new TV technologies that could radically disrupt viewing behaviour.
Still, there are two things Twitter can count on: audiences will continue to seek out engaging television shows, and we’ll continue to chat with each other about them online. But human behaviour on the Internet may prove harder to control and commercialize than Miley Cyrus’s ass. Where our eyeballs land next is anyone’s guess. If our Twitter conversations get too cluttered with commercials, we’ll just take them elsewhere.