Cover Story: Much A-Twitter About Something

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For authors, actors and inventors, there is a general rule of thumb: If Oprah has you on her show, you've made it.

On April 17, when Oprah started her own Twitter account and hosted some of its creators, it could be said that the popular microblogging service left the world of the technorati and entrenched itself into the mainstream lexicon. “Twitter” the verb had taken on a new level of acceptance.

A sudden burst of usage from soccer moms is one thing. But in a TV industry yearning for new revenue streams, the operative question is: What is Twitter's long-term value for networks, stations and shows? That is a whole other story, one that might one day make the service as welcome as the next Oprah book.

For now, Twitter is being used by networks and personalities as a solid marketing tool, a way to reach consumers directly and disseminate news fast. But those who buy into it see greater prospects, including the potential lode of using the service as a research tool, or a way to gather communities around shows and sell against that.

To reach that capability, Twitter must keep attracting users and stay relevant in a way former hot-button destination MySpace has not. Good PR helps. At 5:46 a.m. on April 29, Martha Stewart tweeted her appreciation after adding her 500,000th follower: “[T]hanks for the 500k—the fastest, most effective, worldwide, instantaneous, practical tool for mass communication—but what else are you doing?”

The TV industry is now asking Twitter this same question.

For the uninitiated or technophobic, Twitter lets users send out “tweets” of 140 characters or fewer from their own personal microblogs (e.g., Other users can “follow” any other user's tweets, collecting them in a time line on their home page.

Twitter's single biggest advantage in the industry is in its marketing power and reach. TV networks, shows, even individual stars—not to mention television characters—use the service to promote themselves or their programs, and to give (often banal) looks into what is happening at the moment.

Martha Stewart, Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres and Jimmy Fallon routinely tweet their day's guests.

“For marketing purposes it is [an] undiscovered country,” says Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, a marketing agency whose clients include HBO and AMC. “It is a place for influencing what journalists and news organizations write about, and celebrities continue to get involved. It is ripe for fertilization for the TV business.”

The CW simultaneously announced new cast members on its pilots via Twitter and press releases. Network publicists use the service to keep tabs on the media and to announce new shows and initiatives. Word that CBS picked up another season of The Amazing Race appeared first on host Phil Keoghan's Twitter page, with a press release hours behind.

“We are being aggressive in [first marketing news] to people who like to tweet,” says CW marketing chief Rick Haskins, explaining the decision to announce the casts through the service. The hope is that those loyal fans who choose to follow The CW will forward the information, further propagating the news.

“The challenge is how you connect it to the rest of your marketing activity,” says NBC President of Marketing Adam Stotsky. “Twitter in isolation is a tree falling in the woods; there is a full story that has to be connected.” CNN, for example, uses Twitter to send out breaking-news blasts, pushing users to for the full story.

Twitter also allows networks, stars and news anchors to interact directly and in real time with viewers. CNN's Rick Sanchez regularly talks to viewers via Twitter during his show, and Late Night's Fallon has asked his followers to send in anything from pictures of tattoos to questions for guests.

“The biggest benefit for TV shows in general is that it is a direct connection to your audience, and not only shows but personalities,” says Gavin Purcell, co-producer of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. “Jimmy uses it as a sounding board sometimes.”

But the further challenge—especially for an industry that's notoriously slow to change—is whether Twitter has a business model that can generate revenue for networks seeking to take advantage of the service.

The television tweeters B&C spoke to identified two areas where the service holds untapped potential: utilizing Twitter's ability to search tweets in real time for market research, and selling against its ability to organize tweets around a subject.

“[Twitter] is essentially the world's biggest test audience,” Purcell says. “I love going on Twitter when the show is on, and watching people respond by searching for '@jimmyfallon' or 'Jimmy Fallon.' It is useful for me as a producer to see how people are responding as the show is happening.”

Twitter, in this way, is like a market research survey, giving networks the ability to gauge audience reaction as it happens. Much the same way networks used to search message boards for fan feedback, they are now searching Twitter for real-time reactions.

A section of the Twitter search page called Trending Topics collects keywords that are popping up at each moment. Searching there at 8:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, American Idol or the name of a finalist is sure to pop up. The same is true for other programs in other time slots.

That's not only useful for networks looking for feedback: Handled properly, it can be used to generate revenue. Television executives pointed to two efforts, one by Glam Media and the other by Gawker Media, as ideas for creating new, albeit small, monetary streams.

Glam Media collected tweets about the Academy Awards earlier this year in a widget sponsored by skin-care brand Aveeno. Gawker collected tweets from and about the Tribeca Film Festival on a page sponsored by Stolichnaya vodka. The only cost for the companies was the time spent to build the page or widget. Most networks already have Web editors who could be pulled into double duty monitoring the sponsored Twitter streams for offensive content. One executive even floated the idea of Fox collecting all of the American Idol tweets in one place and selling the page around them.

The revenue generated from these efforts would be tiny compared to the larger advertising pie, but it is a new and easy way to sell against free, user-generated content.

Last month, Nielsen published numbers showing that Twitter has a one-month retention rate of just 40%: For every 10 people who join the service, six will stop using it within a few weeks. Nielsen was cautious in its assessment, but those numbers do not bode well for Twitter. Facebook and MySpace, by comparison, had retention rates upward of 70% at the same stages in their development.

Facebook has more than 200 million users and MySpace over 250 million, according to their own numbers. Twitter, by contrast, has just 14 million users, projected to jump to slightly more than 18 million by next year, according to eMarketer.

“The thing that is so interesting about Twitter and a lot of innovation in the digital space is how quickly it comes up as a huge fad,” Haskins says. “Whether or not that fad becomes a trend is something we are always very interested in. Once it moves into a trend, it becomes something we will be evaluating more closely.”

One can argue that by attracting the Oprahs and Marthas of the world, Twitter has, as a red-hot fad, jumped the shark. But as to whether or not it will remain useful, Haskins suggests a loose metric. “If it is in the daily lives of our audience for a year or more, you can be pretty much assured that it has legs,” he says.

The industry can help see to that, if it can capitalize on Twitter and help make it useful and sustainable. Then again, some new technology may cause users to abandon Twitter before it becomes ubiquitous. “There are only 24 hours in a day, and people often shove aside the old for what is shiny and new,” says one network executive.

Time will answer that question. Or, as no less an arbiter of trends than Martha Stewart encapsulated in a tweet at 9:56 p.m. on April 28: “Yes, Twitter is cool—but the question is, what is next?”

With Claire Atkinson