The Limits of Twitter’s TV Pitch

As it prepares to make its IPO filing public this week, Twitter is working hard to convince marketers, media owners and now investors that its links with television are worth their attention.

The company used its multiple Advertising Week appearances last week to attempt to convince marketers that its network should be thought of as the “social soundtrack to TV,” because so much discussion around TV occurs across it. It wants to help advertisers better understand their TV ad audiences and to retarget them with ads on Twitter. It also wants to help TV networks distribute short-form video content. It made a pair of purchases — Bluefin Labs and Trendrr — that give it firepower to deliver. It’s also struck deals with networks including CBS and ESPN.

It’s a compelling story, and one the company tells well. It can point to hundreds of thousands of tweets from die-hard fans of shows like “The Walking Dead,” “True Blood” or “Breaking Bad,” not to mention live televised events like the Super Bowl or the Oscars to back it up. But the reality is Twitter’s TV pitch faces major challenges, despite a strong start.

The biggest of those challenges is that not many people are really tweeting about TV shows yet. The company says 95 percent of public social media conversation happens on its platform, but that doesn’t mean it’s a mainstream behavior. Far from it, in fact. Earlier this year, Twitter implied it attracts somewhere in the region of 60 million U.S. users on a monthly basis, but it’s likely only a small portion of those tweet about TV regularly, digital media experts suggest.

“The majority of Americans are not on Twitter and are unlikely to ever join,” argues Alan Wolk, lead analyst at Piksel. ”While Twitter currently has a large install base compared to any dedicated second-screen experience, it is nowhere near as ubiquitous as many advocates would have us believe.”

A big part of Twitter’s TV pitch has revolved around sports, but even former CBS Sports general manager, Jason Kint, has doubts about the current scale of Twitter’s social TV user base.

“I would bet 1-2 percent of viewers tweet,” he tweeted following the platform’s TV offensive last week. Twitter’s TV story needs to develop further, he argued, and added that he’s seeing “too many execs and non-users talking about fictional opportunities that don’t scale.”

In the face of that type of criticism, Twitter can easily turn to numbers to make its case. Thirty-two million people in the U.S. tweeted about TV programming last year, it says, for example. In the same period, 5.8 million tweets included the words “American Idol.” Last night, 600,000 people sent 1.24 million tweets referencing the series finale of “Breaking Bad” – representing around 6 percent of the show’s 10.6 million viewers. (Twitter declined to comment further for this story.)

But Wolk suggests much of that activity is just noise. It often comes from a relatively small handful of particularly noisy individuals, as opposed to millions of viewers tweeting once. As a result, it’s not exactly representative of a show’s audience at large. What’s more, for every Super Bowl that attracts 24 million tweets, there are plenty of reruns on cable TV that practically nobody is tweeting about.

That’s where Facebook could have an edge. The conversation that happens around TV on the social network isn’t public like it is on Twitter. But Facebook is upping the ante to make it useful for TV networks and marketers anyway. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Facebook is now sending weekly reports to networks detailing how much conversation their shows are generating across its platform. The reports will reveal anonymized data about the types of audiences that referenced their programming, and how many likes, comments or shares their shows inspired.

“Facebook is chasing the same ad dollars as Twitter,” said Pete Stein, Razorfish CEO, in reference to Facebook’s recent moves. “It’s competitive.”

But for its part, Twitter has moved beyond data and is aggressively in-market selling ad products around its TV chatter, including TV retargeting capabilities that allow advertisers to display sponsored tweets to users who likely saw their TV ads. Those products are compelling, agencies say, but they’re still very much works in progress.

“One of the important questions that still needs answering is what is it that’s going to get a viewer to actually engage?” asked Stein. ”What’s the way to extend to story as opposed to just hitting a user with another impression?”

Stein added that the Twitter opportunity is an interesting one for marketers but that it still has a long way to go to prove there’s a there there when it comes to its relationship with TV.

“The reality is, when it comes to co-viewing opportunities, advertisers are still in experimentation mode,” he concluded. “It’s very early on, and this is still emerging, still growing. We’ll have to wait and see where Twitter takes it.”