It is 75 minutes before showtime at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, and the Justin Bieber Watch is in full effect. (OMG!) On the fourth-floor pool deck of the hotel that overlooks the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, a motley collection of MTV marketing partners, entertainment executives, and other shiny Angelenos are enjoying cocktails and squinting at the open-air red carpet. (Any minute now!) MTV has parked a cadre of young fans in bleachers across the street to scream on cue at every celebrity arrival, but in the meantime, they're baking in the sun. Amid the hubbub are two guys huddled together, drinking Michelobs, unmoved by the glamour around them. After a few polite neck cranes over the rail, Twitter cofounder Evan Williams, flanked by his then-COO Dick Costolo, gives up. "I really can't see anything," he says. Williams then looks over at the bleachers, sees one girl literally turning pink before our eyes, and deadpans, "They probably didn't know to wear sunscreen."
And with that, Williams and Costolo turn their attention to the real event — on their mobile phones. The Twitterverse is very much enjoying the Video Music Awards preshow, and the duo track every VMA-related trending topic with barely disguised delight. All of a sudden, trouble strikes: Costolo's BlackBerry isn't cooperating. "The Twitter app isn't working!" Costolo cries, as he begins comically fussing with the device, before finally pulling out the battery to reboot. "Dude, she's going to report this," Williams says. (Yep.) Williams smiles without looking up from his Android-powered HTC phone. "SMS, man, SMS," he tells the man to whom he'll hand off his CEO role just weeks later. "There are many ways to tweet. Keep it simple." By the time the VIP crowd is ushered to the venue, Costolo's phone is up and running. "We're now every trending topic," he says, smiling into his BlackBerry. "Yeah," Williams confirms. "We are."
By "we," the pair mean that Bieber, Kanye, and everything related to the MTV extravaganza are the most popular topics of discussion on Twitter. Thanks to an aggressive, coordinated effort that saw the debut of the world's first full-time Twitter jockey and tweets and Twitter data (such as 9,242 Lady Gaga tweets per minute) displayed on 28-foot-high screens on stage, the VMAs became the most elaborate Twitter-integrated live televised event to date. While Williams and Costolo enjoy the VIP glory and Gaga's dress thrills the carni-sartorial crowd, the victory really belongs to Chloe Sladden and Robin Sloan — two of Twitter's three-person media team (the other, Ross Hoffman, handles live music and sporting accounts) — who spend the big night in a tiny, stark production trailer nearby, organizing the raw tweetstream into entertaining snippets of information and cleverly encouraging the at-home audience to participate.
The desire to talk back to the TV and somehow be heard, to interact with other viewers and even control the images beamed into our living rooms, has had a strong pull on the collective id of dreamers and media barons since the earliest days of the medium. Yet no one has ever really cracked the code to bring this vision of TV to life. Until now. Twitter's media team has found ways to creatively cross-pollinate Twitter and television into a viewing experience that actually delivers on the promise of interactive TV. Look behind almost every watercooler-TV spectacle in 2010 — Super Bowl XLIV, the gold-medal hockey game at the Winter Olympics, the Lost finale, breaking news like the Chilean miners rescue, silly awards shows, and even scripted series like Glee — and you'll find robust real-time discussions on Twitter. "What we're seeing now is that Twitter is, in fact, about flocking audiences back to a shared experience, and that usually means a live one," Sladden says. If you're not watching live — and reading the comments from friends, your favorite celebrities, and even total strangers via Twitter — you're missing half the show.
That flocking mechanism is sending Twitter, which has until recently been in a pristine, business-model-free zone, on a pathway to real revenue. Last April, Costolo announced promoted tweets, which let marketers pay to get a tweeted message in front of a wider audience. Promoted trends and accounts have followed, expanding the possibilities for a brand to build a following. A site redesign, rolled out slowly this past fall, opens the door wide: The entire right side of the new Twitter interface, which can integrate pictures and video, is a platform to deliver additional content. Together, these tools are of particular interest to the TV business and its biggest advertisers. Costolo told the assembled marketers at the Interactive Advertising Bureau's MIXX Conference last September that their colleagues would be spending millions of dollars on Twitter in the very near term. "We feel like we've cracked the code on a new form of advertising," he said, "and we feel like we've got a hit on our hands."
For everyone who has derided Twitter as merely a place to tell people what you're eating, this is a wake-up call. In the age of the DVR, Hulu, and Netflix, Twitter could be TV's killer app. And connecting global audiences who are rediscovering the joy of being part of a live studio audience, albeit digitally, may be Twitter's meal ticket. "Twitter is now a form of content," says Sladden. And the world that is rapidly learning to speak in @ signs and hashtags is joining the show.
By the time I sit down with Williams a few weeks after the VMAs, he has handed off his increasingly dense CEO duties to longtime friend Costolo. "Dick's focus is on making the company run," Williams explains. " 'Operational efficiency' is a phrase he likes to use a lot. That's not a phrase I like to use." He pauses. "Except when referring to Dick."
Williams says his job now is to be a product guru — to make sure that Twitter users get the good stuff they're looking for without baking in the sun waiting for something flashy to wander by. "There are 90 million tweets a day, and the vast majority you don't care about," he says. "But the stuff you do care about, we want to get to you. That's a product and technology challenge that we'll be addressing."
It's more than just sunscreen. His goal is to make Twitter so "utterly awesome," as he puts it, that it increases the amount of things people are willing to do there: click, share, watch, reveal their location. "You don't have to tweet at all," Williams says, adding quickly, "though we hope that you do." Twitter will continue to build revenue options by making it easier for marketers to pay and play. "How can we take this thing that's organic and enhance a company's ability to talk to their customers with it?" Costolo told the audience at MIXX.
According to Costolo, companies will pay for ever-improving versions of Twitter's ad products. When advertisers buy one of its promoted services, they will get access to a valuable data point that he calls "resonance," an analysis of the effectiveness of a tweet that includes feedback elements such as how many people click on links; reuse hashtags; retweet a post or mark it as a favorite; or choose to follow a marketer, or conversely, unfollow or block the sender. It's a digital trail that helps marketers learn what works on Twitter.
Williams took his first steps in bringing this vision alive this fall with the redesigned twitter.com. On the left side of the page is your personal stream of content, and the right side is both a dashboard of followers and trends and a content viewer that can host a live stream such as MSNBC's election-night coverage. Yet "even with the new design, Twitter's content is often separate from the site on mobile or SMS," says Jeremiah Owyang, a partner at the social-media analyst firm Altimeter Group. "They have to figure out how to make ads exist in all the places they do."
What they don't have to worry about is generating demand from media companies and their advertisers. Mike DiLorenzo runs social-media marketing and strategy for the NHL, a $2.8 billion enterprise with its own advertiser and sponsor base worth hundreds of millions of dollars and video assets that are priceless to fans. He calls Twitter "an information firehose" and says it's at the top of his list for his digital marketing plan, specifically because of Sladden and her media team. "The truth is, all of our clients are asking for an extension on Twitter," he says. "We intend to leverage every nook and cranny of their platform lock, stock, and barrel."
"You actually drew on the screen?" Sladden and Sloan are in hysterics as they try to understand my childhood love of the cartoon series Winky Dink and You, an early and unlikely innovator in interactive TV. Over the free cafeteria-style lunch at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco's SoMa district, I explain how viewers could help the Winky Dink character get out of danger by drawing a bridge, rope, or tool that he needed onto the actual television, with markers on a screen cover. (I also added my own balloon animals to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and "graphics" behind Chet Huntley's shoulder.) "We should bring that back somehow!" Sloan says. A cheerful brainstorm riff ensues. It's fun to be a television innovator when you've got a clean canvas and a full set of markers.
Sladden, 36, has taken a meandering route to her current life, a hero's journey that would make Joseph Campbell proud. In 1999, Sladden, a native New Yorker, had just joined the stodgiest of old media, book publishing, when nervous whispers of a strange beast called the electronic book were befuddling the ancient order. "I told everyone, 'This is going to change everything!' " she recalls with a laugh. Sladden's mother, who worked with software to help dyslexic kids train their brains, had long preached about the unique promise of storytelling, healing, and technology. Sladden herself, who is endearingly fearless when it comes to new ideas, played tirelessly with Apple's hypercard as a child. To her, electronic books were an opportunity, but she failed to win over her colleagues. "They were like emus, trying to ignore it," she wistfully recalls. She lasted barely a year.
She moved west, got her MBA from Stanford, and then decided to help a grad-school friend make a documentary film about adult dyslexia, a subject deeply in her emotional wheelhouse. "I moved to L.A. to work on the film, did my finances, and realized that I'd be in debt forever," she says. She joined the media practice at Booz Allen, and continued to coproduce and direct the documentary, Headstrong. While consulting, her next opportunity arose: She met Joel Hyatt, cofounder of the fledgling cable network Current TV, and eventually moved over to work for him.
Al Gore, Hyatt's cofounder at Current, was serious about interactive television. "This is about democratizing a one-to-many medium," Gore told me in 2007, "giving people a voice in the creation and distribution of content." Viewers created much of Current's programming, including the commercials. (Of course, Gore being Gore, it took him 20 minutes to explain how he saw it playing out, sharing several chewy metaphors about supply-and-demand theory and Metcalfe's Law.) "Ultimately, we wanted to scale television into a true, two-way medium," says Sladden, who became Current's VP of special programming projects.
Sladden connected with Sloan at Current. A Michigan State grad, Sloan, now 30, had been cooling his heels with a fellowship at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida, until he heard about Current. "I was super-interested in journalism and technology," he says, but there were few "newsroom of the future" jobs to be had. He practically cyberstalked Hyatt, peppering him with unsolicited emails about how the Internet could transform television journalism. He drove cross-country to San Francisco to plead his case in person, sending Hyatt an idea a day from rest stops along the way. His last bit of advice — "Hire me!" — made him an online strategist and Current employee No. 7.
It was Sladden who hit upon the idea hiding in plain sight — Current could stoke a conversation on Twitter and incorporate it into Current programming. "At first," Sladden admits, "we didn't know if we could use tweets on-air." (Turns out, the Twitter "terms of service" were mostly silent on the matter.) She wanted to try it with the 2008 presidential elections: "Something our viewers were interested in," calling the feature Hack the Debate. The inventor of the Internet needed a push to agree. "Al wasn't sure at first," Sladden says. "He never wanted to dumb down the conversation."
To pull off Hack the Debate, Sloan describes a surprisingly low-tech, algorithm-free team effort. "The staff were literally sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, combing through tweets and sending them to each other," he says, acting as a digital bucket brigade for relevant content that they ran across the bottom of the Current screen. They offered surprisingly smart, funny commentary — "This discussion about universal health care makes me want to pop some pills!" — along with the occasional exasperated fact-check. Along the way, Current popularized, if not downright invented, the hashtag to organize related tweets into a single stream. Fans held viewing parties around the country, and Twitter reported triple-digit increases in member signups and posts during debates.
Sladden's success got Williams's attention. "We didn't know what we were at first," he says of Twitter's early days. Sitting in a sunny corner conference room, Williams tells me that any initial confusion — is it a social network? a Facebook feature? — is now over. "I think it's pretty clear now that Twitter is a real-time information network."
And Sladden had just become the world's leading expert in adding that real-time information to a televised event. Williams reached out. "We had the notion that we should have someone who specifically worked with Twitter and media because there is such an obvious synergy that could make both better," he says. Sladden describes the moment when Williams's epiphany turned into her dream job. "I was talking and suddenly Ev leans over and says, 'Do you think that Twitter could become the interactive platform for TV?' " she says, sputtering at the memory. "Yes! He articulated in one sentence what had taken me six months to get to."
MTV's midtown Manhattan offices are like a set for one of its own shows: Broadcast booths dot memorabilia-strewn hallways; Kid Rock is said to be wandering around. "It's like a live event every day," says Dave Sirulnick, EVP, multiplatform production, news and music. He is media-executive handsome, like Dylan McDermott's accountant brother. Sitting in his corner office surrounded by celebrity photos and awards, he talks about how Twitter helped revive the network's signature Video Music Awards from a slide into pop-culture irrelevance.
"The VMAs are our biggest tentpole of the year," Sirulnick says, but 2006 was a dark one. The show's viewership declined to a moribund 5.8 million, half of what it had been just four years earlier. It made the whole network look shaky. Then in the spring of 2007, Michael Scogin, MTV's VP of wireless and a guy who's more tech geek than media slick, walked into Sirulnick's office and said, "You have to see this thing." That thing was Twitter. The service was less than a year old with fewer than a million users, but Scogin saw its potential for MTV's audience of early adopters. "There were no celebrities on Twitter yet," Scogin says, but he felt it could be the perfect way to give fans more access to the juicy backstories of touring, performing, and being famous. Sirulnick green-lighted a test around the MTV Movie Awards. Scogin recruited the cast of MTV's sketch-comedy show Human Giant, including Aziz Ansari, who now stars on Parks and Recreation, to tweet about the show. On June 3, 2007, @azizansari told the world, "I was asked to twitter. I'm just on the red carpet. Jason farted near Jay-Z." Then later, "Michael Chiklis just stole a trey [sic] of sushi from the green room." Ratings were up 23% and the Movie Awards were the top-rated show for 12- to 34-year-olds that night. The age of the enhanced viewer experience was born.
For the VMAs a few months later, MTV reached out to music labels to get artists on board. Scogin set up Twitter accounts for a variety of performers — Soulja Boy, Timbaland, Boys Like Girls, and Little Mama — and sent them free cell phones. "I gave them instructions on how to tweet," he says. "It's like sending a text message. If you know how to SMS, you know how to tweet." (John Mayer, he reassures me, is not his fault.) Before Ashton, before Diddy, before Kanye, these stars tweeted from the red carpet, backstage, and after performances, about themselves and each other. And a funny thing happened: Viewership rebounded to 7.1 million viewers, and MTV.com saw its best day ever with 2.6 million unique visitors. Sirulnick added more Twitter to the VMAs for the next two years, working in 2009 with interactive firm Stamen Design to animate tweets on-screen and create visual maps of the conversation.
By the 2010 VMAs, with both celebrities and the public Twitter-literate, Twitter became part of the main event. The team had to create an entirely new aesthetic that would work online, as part of the preshow TV programming, but also theatrically as part of a live, on-stage event. "It sounds simple until you see it play out," Sirulnick says. "There is a one-to-one relationship with what happens on TV and what's happening on Twitter."
Sladden and Sloan's digital bucket brigade from their Hack the Debate days had evolved into a more sophisticated sorting system. Still, the duo were glued to laptops in a repurposed trailer, feeling Twitter's servers groan from the bursts of traffic (racks of servers are dedicated to Bieber-related burbles alone, which at various times use up to 3% of Twitter's total infrastructure). Sladden recalls, "Dave [Sirulnick] would holler, 'Chloe, what's the story playing out?' looking for what we were seeing in the stream." They worked alongside two programmers from Stamen, who were revising the software that analyzed the tweetstream until preshow time. Two MTV executives directed live shots of the Twitterverse from a control deck. On-air correspondent Sway Calloway even popped by the trailer for live reports. It was madness.
It was also not the "Go online and tell us what you think!" brand of "interactivity" of yester-Internet. Sirulnick wanted to capture a "VMA moment" on Twitter, and he proposed asking viewers to vote #vmabestdressed. Sloan rethought it. "It was going to be 'Gaga — period,' 'Ke$ha — period,' 'Boring — period,' " Sloan says. "It doesn't respect the creativity of the audience." So he pushed for something a little more fun: Let's ask people what would happen if Bieber met Gaga, flagging those tweets with the hashtag #ifbiebermetgaga. Gabi Gregg, the Twitter jockey selected in a monthlong job-interview bake-off by Twitter users, asked viewers to play along in this game, and minutes later, #ifbiebermetgaga trended nationwide. One prescient quip made it to air: "#ifbiebermetgaga, she would prob try to wear him."
During the show, 2.3 million tweets came in and 11.4 million viewers tuned in, almost double the 2006 low and up 27% from 2009. In fact, it was the VMA's best showing since 2002.
Just one year ago, Conan O'Brien did a recurring bit on The Tonight Show where he relentlessly mocked Twitter as a pointless ego-stream by reading boring celebrity tweets. Since then, Twitter has been his lifeline, rallying his spirits and his fan base (#teamcoco) in the aftermath of being pushed out of NBC. He's visited Twitter headquarters to thank the staff, and the service has been an integral, and still funny, part of his new show, which debuted on TBS November 8th. He's even made use of one of Twitter's spanking new ad products by promoting a tweet directing people to a TeamCoco live webcast, which attracted an impressive 660,000 viewers in 24 hours. "He really took a piss on us early on," Sladden says. "But for all the jokes, he really gets the power of Twitter."
TV shows of all stripes — late-night talk shows, award extravaganzas, sports, news, and scripted series — have quickly discovered how effectively Twitter can drive an audience. Glee, for example, is by far the most-tweeted-about prime-time show, thanks in large part to its characters tweeting along with the audience during the broadcast. "People may not want to chat with their friends about Glee," Williams says. "But if you tell them that the characters are talking about the show as it airs, then that's unique." The World Cup in June and July routinely melted Twitter's servers (welcome back, fail whale!), with dramatic goals delivering four times as many tweets per second as usual.
Sports programming offers such potential that last July, Sladden hired Ross Hoffman — who started his career in the William Morris mail room and worked on content acquisition at YouTube — to help build on Twitter's momentum. Before he arrived, Sladden had already done a deal with NBC during the Winter Olympics that featured another on-screen tweet visualization from Stamen.
Hoffman, 28, has been crisscrossing the globe to meet with leagues and teams. He's already attended the NBA's technology summit, visited the NFL's technology subcommittee chaired by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, and called on the biggest soccer clubs in Europe, including Manchester United and its 1 billion fans worldwide, offering to help sporting franchises increase their fan addiction by leveraging Twitter. As we sit in the media team's cubicle pod in Twitter's offices — the only TVs on the premises live here — he machine-guns through the innovations that Twitter makes possible: enhancing major televised events like the Super Bowl, encouraging ticket and merch sales, expanding in-stadium promotions to include fans who are watching live from home. You think seeing your tweet on TV is cool? Imagine it on a jumbotron!
Because athletes love to hear themselves tweet, they are Hoffman's entrée into the teams and leagues that will pay to take advantage of Twitter's platform. "I'm from Philly, and I don't care about the Cincinnati Bengals," he laughs. "But Chad Ochocinco (@ogochocinco) is the best tweeter in the NFL. He's funny. And he talks to his fans." When a player interacts with his fans, they stay glued to Twitter before, during, and after a live event. Soccer dreamboat Cristiano Ronaldo (@cristiano), for example, shares a constant stream of photos from matches. "It's all about the access," Hoffman says. "Even if you buy the best ticket at the game, you still can't get into the locker room."
"Twitter brings a fresh dynamic and promise to Super Bowl media efficiency," wrote Pete Blackshaw and Randall Beard in a 2009 Nielsen report. They predicted a time in the not-too-distant future when TV-ad effectiveness will be increasingly measured by tracking viewer chatter and actions on platforms like Twitter. It has the potential to reframe — and reprice — not just sports marketing but also the $70 billion TV advertising market.
Sladden's team is even taking aim at the TV news business. For Obama's State of the Union address this year, Sladden worked with social-media analysis firm Crimson Hexagon to help CNN incorporate Twitter content into its coverage, capturing the mood of the people by tapping into the live comment stream. It's an updated, writ-large version of CNN's dial-testing experiment during 2008's presidential and VP debates. "It's not just word analysis," explains Dave Bohrman, SVP and Washington bureau chief at CNN. "We were able to measure really interesting degrees of nuance."
During CNN's State of the Union coverage, the congenitally techy anchor John King called up sample tweets by location and tenor on a tricked-out map; some half a million tweets were analyzed. "It's a long way off from being the way that people get their news," Sladden says, "but the potential is storytelling through mass chunks of data. I can envision CNN constantly using very simple, elegant visualizations to show what people are saying and what's happening in the world."
Bohrman repeated the trick for the recent midterm elections, with additional Twitter data on cnn.com, and he's working to figure out how CNN's everyday news programming can enjoy the ratings spikes that election-related coverage typically gets. "Will this be a usable partner with traditional polling?" he asks aloud, before musing, "It could also be that this too will be a fad that may pass after a couple of years."
There's also the possibility, of course, that Twitter is becoming the CNN for the 21st century. Sladden walks me through the Twitter activity around the attempted coup in Ecuador in late September. Following the sequence of bystanders uploading photos, she shows me people milling nervously, then police in riot gear, then smoke. "You can feel the growing tension and violence," she says. "I can see the Ecuador coup unfolding before my eyes in real time, with just a basic Twitter search."
This is just one of the ways Twitter can use its more than 160 million users worldwide to do news gathering. "Twitter is a democratic medium," Williams says. "We can democratize information." And Twitter can package that content through its new interface to deliver not just real-time updates but also commentary, photos, and, yes, even video.
With the announcement of its new advertising platforms, this is the moment that Twitter is throwing the switch on the revenue machine. It's got ad dollars trickling in from about a hundred A-list brand partners, including Starbucks, which rarely advertises on TV, and TV mainstays such as Best Buy, Coca-Cola, and Nike. Public reports indicate that these advertisers are currently spending in the high five figures for a promoted tweet. Marketers are expected to spend about $1.7 billion on social networks in 2010 — just 6.7% of the total $25.1 billion Internet advertising market, according to research firm eMarketer.
Twitter can move the needle here significantly. But the engine that could bring in the millions of dollars that Costolo promised is still being primed. Ask anyone at Twitter about how it plans to sell that right-hand panel filled with additional content and the answer is the same: "We're still figuring all that out," Sladden says.
Twitter's recent inclusion in Google TV, which allows people to watch web videos and other content on their sets, is a perfect example of the company's willingness to experiment and see what works. "It could be cool," Williams says, but "there have been years' worth of ideas to make TV a two-way experience. All relied on complex mechanisms that would require boiling the ocean and replacing everyone's TV and set-top box. They didn't work and were poorly designed." (In fact, Google TV has already run into trouble as ABC, CBS, and NBC have prevented their content from appearing on the service.) Williams gestures with the phone in his hand. The two-way mechanism is here. Interactive TV is a multiscreen experience, he argues, with the interactivity happening on a phone, iPad, or laptop while watching the big screen. "I don't know what the right user experience is yet," he admits, "but it's obviously part of those guys' jobs" — meaning Sladden, Sloan, and Hoffman — "to figure it out with the people who actually make the shows."
"Turns out, not everyone wants to use Twitter on television the same way," Sladden says. "Revenge of the liberal-arts majors" might be the best way to describe the method that the media team uses to help partners figure out how best to use Twitter. "Robin will lead a design-oriented brainstorm session to try to tease out in their own words what that relationship will be and what that creative potential is," Sladden says. "It's anthropology, learning their tribal language. It's better when it's native to you, but you can crack the code if you listen, ask good questions, and care enough to understand."
Twitter currently measures how much time its people spend coaching marketers before they create an effective campaign, along with the types of advice they're giving. Once they convert what they learn into products that don't require hand-holding, Costolo has said they can line up more advertisers. Observe, learn, automate, rake it in.
This is precisely Sladden's goal. "I'm never going to run a 200-person media team," she says. "We can't scale if humans have to do everything." Instead, she works closely with ad sales, figuring out what's possible, and what can be systemized. "What does a promoted tweet with video look like in a real-time medium for a movie that's being released in eight hours?" Sladden says. "We now have a place to go with these questions."
Until those kinds of questions turn into boilerplate answers, she remains grateful. "I didn't have a plug-and-play thing for media partners," Sladden says. And now she does. "I have an ad platform," she says. "Yay!"
Additional reporting by Tina Dupuy and Danielle Sacks.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2010/January 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.