Ask Twitter CEO Dick Costolo or any of his lieutenants what makes Twitter special and the answer is the same: “It’s public, it’s real time, it’s conversational, and it’s widely distributed.” It took Twitter a long time to find a message and get everyone on the same page. Notice something else, too: Twitter has tried to define itself by what Facebook isn’t.
Twitter has long lived in the shadow of the (still) bigger Facebook. In the opinions of insiders, Twitter’s true strength as a concept and a product has been obscured by unfair comparisons. Even to themselves. And now that we’ve all taken a good look at Twitter’s recent S-1 filing, it’s easy for armchair stock analysts to continue the practice. When Facebook went public in May 2012, it had 845 million users to Twitter’s 215 million. It will also have roughly 13% of the revenue that Facebook had by the time it reaches the capital markets.
But what about the hard work that Twitter did to figure out its highest purpose, which has led it where it wants to end up? (As in very, very profitable.) “Honestly, we didn’t know what we were at first,” Twitter cofounder and then CEO Ev Williams told me in 2010. By then, the company was still studying some of its early media wins. Users were flocking to Twitter to discuss live events–everything from US Airways Flight 1549 landing on the Hudson River, to Lady Gaga’s meat dress at the VMAs. “I think it’s pretty clear now that what we called Twitter is really a real-time information network, not a social network. The use case and the fundamentals are very different,” Williams said.
But that use case also placed Twitter in a direct conflict with its great rival, Facebook, both internally and in the marketplace for users and advertisers. “Five or six years ago, Silicon Valley was the creative disruptor,” says Chloe Sladden, Twitter’s head of media and previous Fast Company cover subject. “Facebook’s approach is to dominate, destroy, break things,” she said, her voice dropping to a deeper register. “It was clear to me that wasn’t us.” Williams hired Sladden away from Current TV specifically to scale, well, whatever it was Twitter was turning out to be. “That tension–that Silicon Valley was going to reinvent everything–was everywhere,” and it made traditional industries, like media, feel very threatened. It still does. “That [Facebook’s] Sheryl Sandberg talks about doing their own ‘upfronts’ isn’t doing them any favors,” one Twitter insider told me recently.
Several media executives and advertisers told Fast Company–on background only–that the experience of working with the two companies is vastly different. “Twitter has a team that’s designed just to help us understand Twitter,” says one network digital marketing exec, still seemingly incredulous about Sladden’s team and her collaborative approach. “They don’t sell us anything. They come in, we have meetings, and, you know, the first few times, I was waiting for them to say, “Hey, you should buy this.” Facebook, meanwhile, “They treat television pretty much exactly the same way they would treat, you know, a toilet tissue product. ‘Okay, this is it. You can buy it or you can not buy it.’ ”
It was Sladden who challenged the Facebook-Silicon Valley mantra head on. “The idea that we could position Twitter as a natural fit and a true complement to media–and it seems so obvious now,” she says. “But five years ago, it was a radical concept,” she says. “The mental set is entirely different. I’m going to come in with my numbers [of users] and say–‘what problem are we solving together?’”
She’s turned her team into unpaid consultants, showing up everyplace from the set of Law and Order: SVU to the Vatican with ideas, empathy, and support. Says Fred Graver, Twitter’s head of TV, “We really distinguish ourselves when we come in with ideas specifically about their show. You come in with 15, maybe four will get used, and you’re fine with that ratio. But we come in ready to partner.” Sladden allows herself a rare moment of swagger. “We’ve run away with the TV story. There’s not much competition.”
Costolo is seemingly everywhere in meeting with creative and advertisers to cement this ownership and blunt Facebook’s growing interest in touting its social-TV bona fides. “When I get the head of Cinemax and Dick Costolo in a room together to talk about innovation and the future of things, that’s a really serious fucking meeting,” says Greg Yaitanes, an Emmy-award winning director and producer and early Twitter investor. Around last Thanksgiving, Costolo had breakfast with Laura Desmond, CEO of media buying giant Starcom Mediavest, and as the two realized their shared vision for marketing being experience based, it led not only to Twitter’s first deal with a global media-buying agency last April, but also, Desmond says, to Twitter’s embrace of measurement. “We like the fact that Twitter is willing to ground their work in research,” she says, citing its acquisition of Bluefin and its work with Nielsen. “I think that the fact that they’re willing to ground it and put data behind it is conducive to our marketers’ ears because one of the big challenges that we all have and Twitter will have is how do we measure the impact of conversation and amplify experiences from one moment to the next.”
Ali Rowghani, then Twitter’s CFO (and now COO), has taken on the job of making the creative partnership versus destruction strategy scale internally. “We had our hearts opened early on,” he says, watching creative types like TV show runners watch the site to see if their jokes were landing. “But the issue was making the business case. And we needed to be able to measure our impact.” The live nature of the platform–about 80% of tweets are consumed within an hour of being created, and 96% of accounts are public and viewable, makes Twitter ideal for driving conversation around events. “It can be used to measure what the world is talking about in synchronicity with whatever the world is experiencing,” whether it’s an earthquake, a sunset, a reality television program. “Facebook is private, not live,” he says. “Instagram isn’t conversational.” And Netflix? “We believe that there is a more enduring audience for live, linear broadcasting than Netflix or YouTube would like you to believe.”
And Sladden remains optimistic that Twitter will maintain its lead. “This is a humanities thing,” she says, sounding exactly like the kind of person who is worried about what their little television show would want sitting across from them with an offer of help. “We’ve won the ‘heart moment’ in the shared experience, a basic human need to connect, whether it’s something terrible like a bombing or something exhilarating, like a surprise reality show winner,” she says. “And we are good at that.”