"So, where are we on getting Spader?"
Fred Graver, Twitter’s head of TV, is hunkered down in a cramped conference room in the company’s New York office with a tiny team of two. Outside, sales and marketing staffers gear up for a Summer Friday confab, but Graver isn’t thinking about margaritas. He’s thinking about how to nab James Spader. The actor is returning to television this fall as a creepy criminal mastermind in a highly anticipated show called The Blacklist. Graver wants Spader on Twitter posting behind-the-scenes photos from the set, live-tweeting episodes, conversing with fans—and hell, maybe even tweeting creepy criminal-mastermindy things. That would be just fine.
Graver’s goal is clear: Make sure that all the people who enjoy television take to Twitter to enjoy it even more. When viewers watch TV—their smartphone or tablet at their side—using Twitter to chat with their virtual friends about a program, it creates "the world’s biggest couch," he says. And who better to have gossiping on the sofa with you than the star of the show?
Spader tops a very long list of celebs whom Graver is stalking. While nearly every TV program these days flashes something Twitter related on-screen, most of these feeds read like the PR–tinged musings of a social media intern. "People follow people," Graver says, a mantra he drops on television executives early and often. Twitter has won over the digital marketing departments of every network; now it needs their stars. Lara Cohen, who joined Twitter two weeks ago from Us Weekly, already has one triumph to report. "Allison Janney signed on today!" she says. Janney, best known for her role on The West Wing, stars in the new CBS sitcom Mom; her first tweet was to thank Cohen for her help.
Spader, like any other actor associated with a show, has his own agenda and concerns about speaking directly to his audience. Those goals "are somewhat aligned with the network’s," Graver explains, "but not completely. First of all, it’s a work thing. They’re already paid to show up on set. Now you want me to do what? And everyone worries about tweeting a spoiler or creating a Tom-Cruise-on-Oprah’s-couch moment."
Graver’s counterargument: "It drives ratings, it’s good for the show, and it’s easier than you think," says the nerdy and likable exec, whose 30-year career in the TV business spans everything from writing gags for David Letterman to running the Travel Channel. He also believes that stars with real followers are more attractive to casting agents. (To wit: Under the Dome executive producer Neal Baer credits his actor Colin Ford’s massive "Twitter audience of young girls" with expanding the show’s audience beyond that of the typical CBS drama.) And that, Graver says, is a nice bit of business for people who are never guaranteed a next gig.
One compelling piece of evidence for Graver is this year’s Twitter breakout social star: Kerry Washington, the lead of ABC’s sexy Beltway soap, Scandal. Graver explains that once Washington understood what it meant to live-tweet—i.e., show up on the Twitter couch while the program is actually on, "she said, ‘We should all be doing this.’ And she taught everyone in the cast how." She even wrote sample tweets for her reticent costar Tony Goldwyn and put them in his draft folder so all he had to do was click during the broadcast.
Scandal’s Twitter infatuation last season was a true phenomenon. Fans went wild creating hashtags based on scenes in the show, and the cast embraced them. New episodes consistently generated an impressive 2,200 tweets per minute, and during the season finale in May, five of the top 10 worldwide trending topics were Scandal related. "The conversation on Twitter drove people to discover the show," Graver claims, strongly suggesting that Scandal’s use of Twitter transformed the hour-long drama from a middle-of-the-pack performer into a smash hit in its sophomore season. As the final part of his pitch to stars, Graver points to Washington’s beautiful August 2013 Vanity Fair cover. All that chattering has made Washington very famous, he’ll explain. Imagine what it could do for you, James Spader!
Just as Scandal’s success is linked to Twitter, Twitter’s fate—and the success of its IPO—will be inextricably linked to TV. The $75 billion industry has given Twitter its highest-profile triumphs: "Oh, my God" moments from MTV’s Video Music Awards to the season premiere of Duck Dynasty. Thanks to these spikes in conversation, Twitter can assert that chatter on its service drives people to tune in live, shoring up TV’s existing appointment-viewing business model.
The company aspires to be the solution to one of the gnarliest challenges in the modern media business—and in the process open up a spigot of revenue that would help justify Twitter’s reported $10 billion valuation. Twitter is convincing advertisers that it is the place to target and reach a passionate audience, whether for a TV show or a branded product. "If you think about what they’ve done, it’s actually brilliant," says one network executive who’s worked with Twitter. "These TV partnerships are a small part of their revenue but a huge part of their PR and sales strategy. They’re changing the narrative of Twitter to be this really smart, topical, content-based, strategic place for advertisers to be as opposed to a bunch of noise and blather."
Twitter is doing everything it can to augment TV viewer engagement, on the theory that this will in turn boost TV ratings. Last spring, it rolled out a new advertising product called Amplify, which lets content creators send short video clips (along with an ad) not only to people currently live-tweeting a show but also to anyone whom it thinks might want to tune in. Twitter has spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing a ratings system similar to what the TV and advertising businesses have been accustomed to for more than 60 years. Twitter is even revamping its basic interface, to make it as friendly to the "normal people" who watch TV after work as to the Silicon Valley geeks who first embraced the service.
If Twitter manages all this, and then pulls off a successful initial public offering, it will become the ultimate mythbuster, the spirit guide for every tech startup that builds an audience first and a business model later. (Looking at you, Snapchat.) In less than a decade, it will have morphed from a dysfunctional cultural phenomenon with zero revenue to a grown-up outfit generating more than $1 billion next year. "I would argue that TV is making Twitter viable, not the other way around," says one network executive. "Without TV, what is Twitter?" The company’s friendly pitch to the established order in Television City and on Madison Avenue busts one more in-vogue assumption: that every startup has to be "disruptive" to succeed.
Chloe Sladden, Twitter’s VP of media and Graver’s boss, is the person responsible for first presenting the vision that Twitter could offer a "massively shared experience" around real-world events, particularly those broadcast on live TV. Twitter hired Sladden in the spring of 2009, luring her away from Current TV (now Al Jazeera America), where she had attracted Twitter’s attention by being the first to integrate tweets into a news network’s live coverage of one of the 2008 presidential debates. At the time, Twitter was struggling to define its business purpose. Was it a platform? Was it a content creator? "The first year of this job was the most exhausting of my life," Sladden says, explaining how she had to learn both the inner workings of Twitter and commercial television.
She was relentless—her word, not ours—in pitching networks on the idea that TV goes better with Twitter. When she worked with MTV on the VMAs, she huddled in a production truck selecting the best tweets to post on-screen and brainstorming hashtags on the fly to stoke conversation.
Sladden’s approach was a refreshing change for an industry buffeted by companies threatening to upend the TV business. As one network executive describes Twitter’s perspective, "Look, Mr. Broadcaster, we don’t want to eat your lunch at all. We’re your friend. We don’t want to steal any money from you. We respect everything you do. We think we can be additive and make us both better." Right from the start, Sladden chose not to charge the networks for sharing Twitter’s expertise in social media. Rather, she volunteered to show how Twitter could mitigate the networks’ hand-wringing about binge watching and get people back into the habit of viewing at the date and time scheduled by the networks.
It helped that Twitter’s message was often delivered by former TV executives with real credibility. "They’ve been very effective at hiring people with strong TV backgrounds who understand our world," says Guy Slattery, EVP of marketing at A&E. "Fred [Graver] in particular has been instrumental in outreach to the TV industry." Revenue chief Adam Bain hails from Fox, his former boss Peter Chernin is on Twitter’s board, and CEO Dick Costolo’s roots as a stand-up comedian have served him well in being able to schmooze Hollywood folks.
Producers and showrunners have quickly become Twitter evangelists. "There’s no question ratings can go up, conversations can become larger, and you can get feedback on what you could make better about the show," says Mark Burnett, the man behind such Twitter-integrated juggernauts as Survivor and The Voice. "I had dinner at my house before I did The Bible [last spring’s 10-hour docudrama], with Dick Costolo and the Twitter team. I didn’t seriously think about the Twitter [aspect] of The Bible. But Chloe said, ‘No. This will be huge. Talk to our team that deals with faith.’ " (Sladden had installed a team member at the Vatican to help the cardinals and the Pope learn to tweet. She even tried to get them to use Vine, Twitter’s six-second video app, to capture the white smoke. "It didn’t work," Sladden says, "but I felt I had to try.") The Bible was "a huge Twitter experience," Burnett says, the No. 1 trending topic throughout much of its two-hour premiere, and it attracted more than 100 million viewers during its run.
Still, Sladden kept hearing the same caveat from her TV partners: We love working with you, this is superfun, but if we can’t prove that Twitter drives tune-in, we’re not sold. "Our broadcast partners wanted us to develop our own ratings system," Sladden says. Even for Twitter, which has raised more than $1.1 billion in financing, creating one would be very expensive—and fraught with turmoil.
Costolo, who became CEO in October 2010, came into his job with a single mission: to make money. So at first he didn’t know what to make of Sladden’s work, which generated absolutely no income. The excellent feedback he got from people he spoke to on sales and development calls convinced him that TV could be a major driver of revenue. But how? Costolo and Ali Rowghani, who was CFO until being promoted to COO in December 2012, decided to put more resources behind Sladden’s efforts. Says Rowghani, "We had to start with measurement."
By the summer of 2012, there was a boomlet of startups that each believed they could use data analytics to become the Nielsen Research of the social media age by accurately measuring the volume of social media generated by events and identifying the characteristics of the people tweeting those data. "There were at least four or five smaller companies—Trendrr, SocialGuide, Bluefin Labs," says Sladden, ticking off a few. "Nobody knew what metric was right or what to believe," Rowghani recalls. "To solve that confusion in the marketplace, we needed a single industry-standard measurement."
Of course, Nielsen itself wanted to be the Nielsen of the social media age. It made the first big move, acquiring SocialGuide in November 2012 and promptly announcing that it would create the industry standard for social TV. A few weeks later, Rowghani made a deal with Nielsen for the two companies to publish a "Nielsen Twitter TV rating" starting this fall.
The new service purports to measure the multiplier effect between the people who tweet about a show and the people who read those tweets, typically on their phones. It’s a complex analysis that SocialGuide CEO Andrew Somoli insists will provide a more accurate picture of audience size. "We’re seeing that in some cases the reach might be 20 times, 30 times, maybe even 50 times bigger than the authorship," he says. In other words, if 40,000 people tweet about a show, 2 million people might be reached by Twitter; and in an age where a hit show like Fox’s The Following gets just 3.3 million 18- to 49-year-old viewers, that’s a big increase. Sladden is breathless in anticipation. "This is the first time that we’re really ever equating conversation from a set of people to the influence it has across Twitter," she says.
But Hollywood loves to denigrate Nielsen—"They’re the IRS of television," says one insider—which has limited the enthusiasm of TV execs. In the run-up to this fall season, Nielsen released a study showing that there is a correlation between social activity and increased TV ratings. In August, another report claimed to show a causal relationship between tweets and TV viewership. Yet neither was embraced as proof of concept. "It was a small study," says Sabrina Caluori, VP of social media and performance marketing at HBO. "There were no premium or cable networks [included]." The report revealed that tweets caused ratings to spike for just 29% of the 221 episodes in the sample. Unsurprisingly, tweeters had the greatest impact on reality TV, affecting ratings 44% of the time. As for such specifics as how many tweets, exactly, it takes to lift ratings, Nielsen didn’t say. "We’re still looking to see additional studies they’ll be doing to see how our programming may be affected," Caluori says. Still, she is a Twitter believer. "Our take is that Twitter is another important word-of-mouth driver," she says, citing the "rabid" Twitter following of Game of Thrones.
Many senior TV executives remain dubious—if not disdainful—of Twitter. "I don’t know how influential Twitter really is," says Preston Beckman, Fox’s longtime scheduling chief who is now a strategic adviser to the network. "Maybe it adds a tenth of a rating point." He chuckles. "I don’t think any of us are sitting around going, ‘Boy, if we can get people to tweet more, the ratings are going to go up.’ "
"The fact is," adds David Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS, "it’s a very small percentage of the people in the country who participate in the Twitter phenomenon." By "small," he estimates that just 10% of the TV-viewing population tweets while watching, as opposed to the 35% to 50% that boosters want to claim.
Given this resistance, Rowghani knew he needed more data to make his case. So he went out and bought two data analytics companies—Bluefin Labs for $80 million and Trendrr—and partnered with several advertising and measurement agencies, most notably media-buying giant Starcom Mediavest, to understand "the things that trigger conversation around events, whether it’s a big awards show or an episode of Downton Abbey," as Starcom CEO Laura Desmond puts it. Starcom hopes it can help clients such as Coca-Cola and Walmart rapidly take advantage of live moments like Oreo’s quick-thinking "dunking in the dark" promoted tweet during the blackout at last February’s Super Bowl.
Bluefin, headed by founder Deb Roy, holds particular promise. Bluefin analyzes all the TV being watched in the United States and matches it against some 3 billion real-time social comments. Roy’s computers can learn and understand language in context, mapping people and conversations about TV even if they aren’t using the on-screen hashtag. In June, Roy wowed an audience of advertising execs at Cannes Lions, making the case that Twitter had become the "force multiplier" for TV. The relationships of people talking about an event form what Roy terms a "social soundtrack," which helps people not only note and remember its details but also brings them emotional satisfaction. "It is something profound," he says. "It’s been the most amazing experience," Sladden says of working with Roy. "Deb confirms what I’d been seeing. Now let’s see what we can do with that."
Although Twitter had introduced promoted tweets in 2010 and inserted them directly into users’ feeds almost two years later, "we hadn’t found a way," Sladden says, "for our partners [networks and other content companies] to make any money." The genesis of Twitter’s Amplify product, which lets those partners generate revenue and not just buzz, came in the aftershock of the freak 5.8 earthquake that rattled the East Coast of the United States in August 2011. "We read it on Twitter before we felt it in New York," says Glenn Brown, then a new member of Twitter’s ad revenue team. While geeking out about it, they discovered an account in Santiago, Chile, that was just a seismograph connected to Twitter, sending out early warnings of seismic activity. A tweeting object! Brown immediately wondered, How can we apply this to the advertising and media world?
The answer was sports. "There are all kinds of tech objects around the action," he says, so "what’s the equivalent of an earthquake and a seismograph?" A slam dunk, of course. Brown’s team lobbied the NBA to put a backboard camera on Twitter. The account, @NBABackboardCam, tweeted a photo of someone dunking right in time for the 2012 slam-dunk contest. It worked so well that Twitter tried the same thing with an underwater pool camera, complete with voice, for the London Olympics. It was fun, unexpected, and a cool extension of the actual event. "It led directly to the idea of doing instant replays in tweets," Brown says. "We wanted it to feel as if the TV was beaming an instant replay right to your phone."
The sales team pitched networks on the idea that this could create an opportunity to get more revenue from a sponsor. And Twitter, in the spirit of the relationships that Sladden helped build, structured the deal so that the networks would sell the video ad that ran in front of a replay and keep all the money. Twitter would only make money from promoted tweets sold around it. Brown’s first deal was with ESPN and Ford for the college football bowl season, running from December 15, 2012, through January 15, 2013. ESPN embedded video replays of less than 30 seconds along with a five- to eight-second ad from Ford, and used Twitter’s ad product to tweet it out to people who would be interested in the content but didn’t already follow @ESPNCF or @Ford. "We have the technology to post replays within seven seconds of the action actually happening," says Lisa Valentino, ESPN’s SVP of multimedia sales. "Our content becomes more interesting when it’s on a network like Twitter." This was the predecessor of Amplify, which rolled out last May: virtually live video clips embedded in tweets from broadcasters as well as content creators, supported by promoted tweets that, thanks to Bluefin, can be blasted out not just to viewers but to friends of theirs who might also be interested.
Twitter has since delivered highlights for the NBA Finals, the U.S. Open, and ESPN’s regular-season college football slate. "We generated 26.7 million tweets with each game in the NBA Finals, which is crazy," says Dan Rossomondo, the NBA’s SVP for global marketing partnerships. "Game 7 had 86% of all tweets related to TV programming. Tangible results."
Almost immediately, says Brown, "people outside of sports started coming to us with ideas that we hadn’t even thought of." BBC America was one of the first nonsports partners to use Amplify, tweeting out bonus clips of the popular car-enthusiast program Top Gear that were synced up to what was happening during new episodes. "We’re coupling content that’s never been seen before with Twitter’s targeting capabilities," says Mark Gall, executive VP of BBC Worldwide. "That results in a fantastic custom ad solution, which is what advertisers want. This was the big idea."
As Twitter moves closer to its IPO, Costolo, Rowghani, Sladden, and crew are in an all-out sprint to make sure the company appears all grown-up. Recent reports have indicated that Twitter is nervous about the relative size of its overall user base (550 million, or half that of Facebook) and its relatively high "churn rate," business-speak for how many users drop off the service during a given period of time. That’s why making Twitter easier for nontechies is so critical.
"We’re not delivering the product as we should," Rowghani admits, acknowledging that Twitter can be an alien (and alienating) experience for first-time users. While power users love hashtags, @replies, and home-brewed jargon, newbies find those things cryptic. The noble goal: make Twitter so easy to use that a regular person can join and have a good time right off the bat. There’s no point in claiming to be the world’s biggest sofa if your guests can’t figure out how to sit on it.
Every three weeks, Sladden, Roy, and Rowghani meet with the product team to hear about which products are evolving and to share what they’re hearing from the industry and advertisers. There’s a lot to figure out. What could it mean for the Twitter experience when 50% of people sit down not knowing what they’re going to watch when they turn on the TV? Or that Scandal fans spend as much time talking about the clothes as the plot? Sladden’s challenge is to translate what she’s hearing from networks and their advertisers for her more insulated Silicon Valley colleagues. "Why not an applause button?" Graver jokes. "We love to bring these ideas to the boys back at the lab and watch what they do with them."
Twitter’s most recent moves are clearly in service of appealing to the masses. A feature called Conversations, which launched in late August, breaks what had been an uninterrupted flow of reverse chronological posts so it’s easier to follow an exchange between two or more people. The company’s purchase that month of Trendrr brought with it a product called Curatorr, which lets brands, media companies, and advertisers create preloaded Twitter streams that can be embedded on websites, tablets, and television. Imagine tuning in to the Super Bowl and choosing which commentators, comedians, and celebrity fans you’d like to watch the game with. Curatorr is the automated version of what Sladden used to do by hand in those MTV production trucks. "This is all about making it easier for people to find a conversation they want to watch or join," she says. It may be even more, if the tweeters are entertaining; in that case, it could become a way for Twitter to create an experience for users who don’t even watch the live show.
Graver still hasn’t gotten to James Spader; part of the actor’s charm, of course, is that he’s elusive in so many ways. But Graver did secure James Caan, the star of the new ABC sitcom Back in the Game. "That should be entertaining," says Graver, with a chuckle. Sladden, however, won’t be around to savor Caan’s tweets: She’s about to give birth to her first child. "I feel like my Twitter baby and my real baby are joining the world at the same time," she says. "It’s such a wonderful and emotional feeling."
Additional reporting by Skylar Bergl
A version of this article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.