Twitter Wants to Be Your TV

The company is piggybacking on content creators’ ad deals
Photo illustration by 731; Photographs by Alamy

Profitability doesn’t appear to be in Twitter’s future anytime soon. Losses are increasing, membership growth has slowed, and the company’s stock price is down 28 percent since the start of the year, amid a broader selloff in the Nasdaq. But there’s some good news: Twitter’s ad revenue is projected to reach $1.1 billion in 2014, an increase of 84 percent from the year before, according to researcher EMarketer. That’s due in no small part to Twitter Amplify, a year-old program that has allowed the company to snag a piece of the billions of dollars spent annually on TV ads.

Twitter aims to take advantage of the sales strength of media companies that have more established relationships with sponsors. Its salespeople approach advertisers alongside representatives from media companies such as the NFL, the NBA, and Viacom. Together they present a unique proposition: Twitter will run video highlights from major live broadcasts, with advertisers’ names and messages playing before the clip.

In September, for example, early in the second set of the US Open men’s finals, Novak Djokovic outdueled Rafael Nadal in an epic 54-shot rally. Thirty minutes later, Heineken posted a 58-second video of the rally, preceded by a 5-second ad that declared, “Heineken: Open Your World.” The video was watched, retweeted, and commented upon about 18,000 times, and the beermaker says it saw social media conversation about its brand jump 71 percent that day. “Twitter is specifically about what is happening right now,” says Ron Amram, senior media director of Heineken USA, adding that Amplify has become Twitter’s most promising ad tool. “To allow a brand to have real-time ownership of a video that says, ‘This is what you need to know right now’ is pretty powerful.”

After actor Zac Efron won the MTV Movie Award for “best shirtless performance” on April 13, MTV posted his minute-long acceptance speech on Twitter, preceded by a Revlon ad. The video and ad were viewed more than 100,000 times, the network says. In December the NFL posted on Twitter footage of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady awkwardly trying to high-five his teammates, who didn’t notice him. The footage, sponsored on Twitter by Verizon, racked up about 3,000 retweets. To attract more social media attention, “marketers are taking moments that would have been talked about at the water cooler and are allowing them to unfold live,” says Adam Bain, Twitter’s president of global revenue.

Many users watch TV with their phones and computers on their lap and tweet comments on shows. Twitter’s efforts to capitalize on that have started to take shape within the past two years. A division of 30 employees works with media companies to ensure that networks and their actors tweet during broadcasts and that Twitter hashtags and user names appear on the screen. At the end of 2012, Twitter and ESPN showed video clips from college bowl games in user feeds. Twitter initially called the campaign Instant Replays, thinking it would attract advertisers interested in sports programming. Then in April 2013, the Weather Channel opted to use the service to broadcast short, weather updates featuring ads by Duracell. Twitter quickly changed the program’s name to Amplify and broadened its pitch. In March the company introduced a video player that appears in user feeds and begins rolling with a single click. “We are trying to make it feel like the television is magically beaming the clip down to your phone,” says Glenn Otis Brown, the senior director who heads Amplify and a former YouTube executive.

Viacom executives say they were in talks with Twitter for a year, trying to decide whether and how best to use the social network, before Twitter pitched them the Amplify program. “What makes it work best is that it builds on our main screen,” says Jeff Lucas, the head of sales, music, and entertainment at Viacom Media Networks. “Consumers, particularly millennials, don’t want to miss out on a conversation,” he adds, citing Miley Cyrus’s risqué performance at the MTV Video Music Awards last August as the kind of moment that drives Twitter users to TV.

Amplify won’t solve all of Twitter’s challenges. The company wouldn’t say how it’s divvying up the Amplify ad revenue, but the media rights holders are taking the majority cut, according to Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at EMarketer. Viewers can still find many of those TV moments on YouTube, Facebook, and other sites. And it’s not clear whether Amplify will appeal to smaller advertisers, who don’t have recognizable jingles or slogans that can be conveyed in the few seconds before a video clip starts. Perhaps more important for Twitter, users may be alienated by promoted videos that don’t appeal to them. Both Twitter and Facebook risk “becoming increasingly colonized by advertising and marketing that are relatively undifferentiated and overwhelming,” says Tim Hanlon, founder and chief executive officer of the Vertere Group, an investment advisory and media consulting company.

Twitter is expanding Amplify, working on ways to improve targeting, so it can show people video they want to see. The company is considering creative ways to allow users to engage with video and share it with their friends, Bain says. “People can’t get enough video,” says Tom Bedecarre, chairman of digital advertising firm AKQA. “But if it’s not just any video, if Twitter has gone and cherry-picked all the best moments from cable networks, sports leagues, and all the top content owners, then they are going to have amazing content that people want.”

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