Twitter executives have always preferred that you not compare their company to Facebook. While they definitely want Twitter to become the world’s biggest social media company, they say they don’t want it to resemble, in any way whatsoever, the world’s biggest social network. “Twitter is a real-time information network, not a social network,” Twitter cofounder and then–CEO Ev Williams told Fast Company in 2010. “The fundamentals are very different.” In 2013, Twitter’s head of media, Chloe Sladden (who left in 2014), explained that “Facebook’s approach is to dominate, destroy, break things. That wasn’t us.”
Perhaps Twitter has wanted to avoid the comparison because, by almost every measure that matters, Facebook is dominating. Its users, revenue, profits, and market cap dwarf Twitter’s. All Twitter can point to is the fact that it’s cooler, at least according to many of the entertainment elite. (But not all!)
And yet 2015 might be the year Twitter encroaches on Facebook territory—and vice versa. In an effort to win more advertising dollars, Twitter is trying to build a network of mobile developers who are loyal to it rather than Facebook. It wants to be relevant to its users around the clock, rather than solely when news is breaking, so it’s considering reshaping users’ feeds in a way that would resemble Facebook’s news feed. And to compete with Facebook’s 500 million users on Messenger and 600 million on WhatsApp, Twitter is revamping its Direct Messages feature. Facebook, meanwhile, has launched an initiative to loosen Twitter’s lock on Hollywood, so that studios and entertainers will want to put their content on Facebook first. That could significantly boost the social network’s burgeoning video advertising business.
These aren’t just business initiatives. These efforts will affect everyone in the two companies’ orbits—developers, advertisers, creatives, and everyday users.
When Sibyl Goldman joined Facebook in February 2014 as head of entertainment partnerships, she reached out to talent agencies, publicity firms, and celebrities in order to learn their thoughts about the social platform. She quickly realized that her effort was really a “‘Hey, We’re Here’ tour.” Hollywood didn’t even know Facebook had an office in Los Angeles.
Hollywood was a Twitter town. Twitter had turned out to be an ideal companion for people watching TV shows and live events such as the Golden Globes and the Grammys, and CEO Dick Costolo and other execs had made an effort to befriend the town’s power players. But Twitter has an Achilles’ heel: It is not as relevant when it comes to movies. Tweeting from a theater is awkward, and a trip to the multiplex is not a real-time, nationwide, shared experience.
Facebook, on the other hand, has shown itself to be a natural home for the kinds of long-lead publicity plans that build awareness and motivate theatergoers, particularly because it’s a more visual-friendly environment. When Goldman and her team can convince a studio to post a trailer using Facebook’s video player, the impact can be substantial. When it posted the trailer for Disney’s upcoming live-action Cinderella movie, it got 33 million views in its first 24 hours—versus 4.2 million views on YouTube.
Goldman hopes that those kinds of numbers will help woo powerful filmmakers like JJ Abrams, who tend to debut trailers on iTunes, with its sleek design (that’s where the new Star Wars trailer launched). But she’s not just talking numbers. Goldman, who was formerly Ryan Seacrest’s digital chief, is trying to sell Hollywood on the idea that Facebook is different from other platforms, where “you might share a six-second video or just a few words,” she says—without uttering the words Twitter or Vine. She’s positioning Facebook as a hub for all forms and lengths of content. “We’re a place to connect with your fans over the long term,” she explains, “in a very global way.”
To win in Hollywood, Facebook will have to overcome its reputation for arrogance. Twitter’s Costolo is a constant presence in L.A., while Mark Zuckerberg rarely ventures out from Menlo Park. Furthermore, Facebook recently annoyed the studios when it announced it would decrease the visibility of unpaid corporate posts in users’ news feeds. “People have signed up to be fans of shows and movies,” says one digital marketer. “The fact that we can’t actually reach this fan base that we spent a lot of time and money building up is frustrating.”
Twitter isn’t standing by. It’s coaching studio marketers on “how to help unique film stuff happen on the platform,” according to one person who recently attended a “Twitter for Movies” seminar. Based on the success of its TV advertising program, it’s beta testing ads targeted at filmgoers, so marketers of a new sci-fi movie can advertise directly to fans of, say, Guardians of the Galaxy.
Of course, all these efforts, on both sides, might prove insignificant if one of the companies figures out how to share revenue with the studios. Right now, the only benefit studios and TV networks get from sharing their content with Twitter and Facebook is marketing exposure. “They’re really trumpeting Facebook as a platform that we should look at for first-run programming,” says one agent. “That’s challenging because there is no monetization now. I can generate a lot of video views on Facebook, but it doesn’t do me any good, because it doesn’t make me any money.”
Facebook may seem arrogant to Hollywood, but it’s superfriendly when it comes to consumers who sign up. The service immediately provides you with a list of people you might want to “friend”—all you have to do is give it some basic information such as education and home city. And it constantly stuffs your news feed with updates it thinks you might like.
Twitter, on the other hand, has often greeted consumers with a big yawn. While it also has suggested folks for users to follow, it has been much more restrained. For years, it has been mostly on you to find the right people, so that you create a river of Twitter news that’s truly of interest to you. Get it right, and Twitter becomes a glorious channel into the big news of your world—because when news breaks, whether it’s the latest Olivia Pope scandal or events in Ferguson, Missouri, it breaks on Twitter. But getting the formula right takes time.
For many newcomers, it takes way too much time. In the third quarter of 2014, Twitter’s monthly active users ticked up by a mere 4.8% from the previous quarter. In Internet terms, that’s downright sluggish. That’s why investors drove the company’s share price down 10%, despite its decent revenue.
In November, Twitter launched a vigorous effort to make itself more attractive to casual users. Leading the charge is Kevin Weil—Twitter’s third VP of product in the past 12 months, and fifth in five years (Chris Cox has held the same position at Facebook all this time). Weil, a longtime engineer from Twitter’s ad side, oversaw the creation of products that generated more than $1 billion in revenue before he was promoted to run all of Twitter’s products.
Step one: “I want to make a consumer’s first run of Twitter easier,” says Weil, in his first extensive interview since being promoted in October. Sign on now, and you are greeted with a handy-dandy checklist asking you what topics you want to hear about. You’ll also be asked to upload your contacts, so that Twitter can tell you who you know on the service, as well as who else you might be interested in following.
Step two is to make sure you always find interesting content. “We want to blend in great content but preserve the real-time nature of Twitter,” he says. “That’s the mission, and we’re going to try a lot of different things.” The company now makes sure your feed is filled with tweets from the very start. It has also introduced a feature that places tweets it deems interesting on the top of your feed when you haven’t logged on for a while. It may even do that with tweeters you don’t know.
The changes will make for an easier, more curated experience—just like Facebook’s. But Weil’s got to get it just right. If he goes too far, he’ll threaten the specificity that distinguishes Twitter from Facebook.
One key to Facebook’s transformation from a desktop-bound behemoth to a nimble mobile leader is the attention it has paid to app developers. In 2013, the company acquired Parse, a mobile development platform that offers app makers such back-end services as providing analytics and letting users register with Facebook. Developers have now built more than 500,000 apps with its tools (compared to 65,000 when Facebook first bought Parse). Facebook benefits greatly from these apps, many of which carry Facebook-generated advertising. Last quarter, Facebook’s mobile advertising revenue jumped 17%.
Twitter is now following the same strategy. Its version of Parse is called Fabric, which the company rolled out at its first-ever mobile developers conference last October. “Fabric, for us, is a huge bet on the world becoming mobile and Twitter’s ability to play a huge part in helping every other company with their transition to mobile,” Weil says. The software tool kit, cobbled together from a number of previous Twitter acquisitions and tools, was created to help developers build and then grow apps. Most notably, it encourages them to use Twitter’s mobile advertising platform for their own in-app ads, and to promote their apps on Twitter itself. Also included in Fabric is Digits, which lets developers sign up new app users with only their phone number. Twitter will reach more people—even if they don’t have a Twitter account. “You’re seeing Twitter evolve,” Weil says. “You’re seeing Twitter Inc. become a mobile services company in addition to being a great consumer product company. We have a lot more up our sleeve.” He’d better.
Weil is playing catch-up on many fronts. Facebook now has two messaging platforms, while Twitter has done virtually nothing to exploit its own direct-messaging feature—which it first introduced in 2006. In fact, Twitter’s most notable DM moment since the Anthony Weiner fiasco came just before Thanksgiving, when CFO Anthony Noto, intending to use a DM, instead publicly tweeted out a note about a confidential potential acquisition.
That was just one of a series of public embarrassments at the executive level that hardly inspire confidence. Shortly before Noto’s faux pas, there was the unveiling of a truly wonky one-sentence “strategy statement,” which was derided for featuring the word world three times and for promising, unfelicitously, that Twitter would be “one of the top revenue-generating Internet companies.” Costolo made a big show last April of plucking Daniel Graf from Google to run the product division, but six months later he demoted Graf and anointed Weil. (Graf recently resigned from the company.) Costolo has reorganized Twitter’s management structure twice in the past year.
As Twitter heads into 2015, it finds itself where Facebook was in the summer of 2012: beset with investor pressure to reinvent itself, to prove to users, advertisers, and shareholders that it can live up to its potential. Facebook’s management, and Zuckerberg in particular, were up to the challenge. It remains to be seen if Twitter’s Costolo and his rebuilt senior leadership team are as well.
“We believe in the ultimate goal,” Weil says, “and we’re going to be thoughtful about how we get there.” Investors, however, aren’t known for their patience, and neither is Facebook. Zuckerberg isn’t going to wait for Twitter to co-opt the best of Facebook before he’s adopted the best of Twitter.