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Apr 19, 2018

Twitter’s bet on streaming paying off in user growth

How Twitter is combating fake news, bots and harassment

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Two years ago, even as its stock plummeted and takeover rumors swirled, Twitter Inc. was hatching a plan to become a force in live video. The company’s goal was to help users discover “what's happening now.”

There were plenty of skeptics who said the battered company couldn’t possibly compete with deeper-pocketed rivals like Facebook Inc (FB.O).

Yet Twitter has carved out a niche in the noisy world of video content and now streams a range of programming, from “Game of Thrones” recaps to National Football League highlights. It has attracted big advertisers, including Goldman Sachs and AT&T, that are buying video ads in the timeline or running brand campaigns next to live broadcasts.

Twitter (TWTR.N) is still dwarfed by Facebook and struggling to grow beyond 330 million monthly active users, but it’s doing as good a job as anyone at figuring out live-streaming—a medium that has been stubbornly slow to take off in the U.S.

In the fourth quarter, the number of daily active users grew 12 per cent, marking Twitter’s fifth consecutive quarter of double-digit year-over-year growth. The company also says video advertising is its biggest ad format and grew as a percentage of revenue in the same period. The stock has jumped more than 30 percent so far this year; when Twitter reports earnings next week analysts expect to see a continued surge in daily active users and accelerating sales growth as brands become more comfortable advertising on the platform.

“There isn’t a better place for live video to take place than on Twitter,” says BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield. The biggest challenge, he says, is making that content easier to find. “The onus is on Twitter to surface the video I want to watch.”

Twitter’s push into video essentially began when the company acquired Periscope in 2015. The live-streaming app is mostly separate from Twitter but helped inform the larger strategy, says Kayvon Beykpour, who co-founded Periscope and now runs the entire video operation.

“We had this early inkling that live broadcasting and live-streaming was a visceral, raw, powerful way for people to share what's happening from the palm of their hand,” he says. Beykpour wants Twitter to be a “prominent place to share, whether it’s you on the street capturing or a professional publisher that wants to share content.”

Some industry watchers thought live-streaming in the U.S. might mirror what’s happened in China, where hundreds of millions of people tune in daily to watch quite ordinary people eat, apply makeup and go about mundane tasks. Viewers swipe through limitless channels, buying virtual gifts for their favorite streamers. But that approach hasn’t caught on in the U.S., which helps explain why Periscope has languished since Twitter bought it. The app lets anyone broadcast live video and interact with others via hearts and comments but has attracted only 2.8 million daily active users worldwide, according to an estimate from the research firm Apptopia Inc.

Instead, Twitter and other social media companies have tied up with professional content producers, including sports leagues and premium cable channels. Facebook’s Watch platform is starting to stream scripted series and recently paid US$30 million-plus to stream 25 Major League Baseball games, Bloomberg reported. The games are only available on Facebook in the U.S., prompting complaints from those unable to view the action on their local television station.

Though Twitter managed to snag the rights to live-stream the NFL’s Thursday Night Football in 2016 for a reported US$10 million, the company lacks the funds to continue spending on expensive licensing deals. Instead, it's partnering with publishers—including BuzzFeed, Vox, and Bloomberg—that invest their own resources to create bespoke content for the social platform. Buzzfeed has said its morning Twitter show “AM to DM” has about 1 million viewers every day, and has attracted such advertisers as Wendy’s and Bank of America. 

Twitter’s sports programing tends to be niche: Esports tournaments, lacrosse and women’s basketball games. Where Amazon outbid rivals to stream Thursday Night Football, Twitter partnered with the league to show live previews and highlights. It’s found a way to coalesce users around culturally relevant topics, without spending to produce that content itself. For example, Twitter struck a deal to live stream “Talk the Thrones,” a “Game of Thrones” after-show sponsored by Verizon with recaps and live commentary. The idea is to marry content with the discussion already happening on the site.

“More and more premium programming is becoming non ad-supported, with the rise of Netflix, HBO and Amazon,” says Matt Derella, Twitter’s global vice president of revenue and content partnerships. “After ‘Game of Thrones’ ends, there’s all this conversation on Twitter where brands can dive into the conversation.”

For the Oscars, Twitter looked for content that would augment the television viewing experience. This year, the company streamed a red carpet show before the awards ceremony began and footage from Vanity Fair’s celebrated after party.

It’s also encouraged brands to livestream content at events where there’s already interest from Twitter users. The annual Consumer Electronics Show generates thousands of tweets on the platform, and this year, Toyota livestreamed its keynote address on Twitter. The video, which can still be watched, has racked up more than 8 million views.

“All of our efforts want to tie the organic conversation on the platform with what’s happening in the world, whether it's a goal in a soccer game, a news event or the Oscars,” says Twitter’s global head of content partnerships Kay Madati, a former Facebook executive.

As Twitter seeks to become a force in live streaming, its biggest constraint is size. Publishers looking for massive audiences have no choice but to consider YouTube and Facebook, which have more than 1 billion and 2 billion users respectively. Moreover, consumers aren’t used to watching long-form content on Twitter, so it’s difficult to hold their attention, says Jeff Ratner, Chief Media Officer of iCrossing Inc., a digital marketing agency. 

“To date I haven't seen a ton of clients push too heavily into advertising on live-streaming content,” he says. “The audiences have been inconsistent.”

Users also complain that Twitter doesn’t make it easy to find particular videos and live streams. Unlike Facebook, which placed its Watch platform in a separate tab on the site, Twitter’s goal is to surface relevant content to users all within the timeline.

Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey has said the company must do a better job matching users with content they’re interested in and that the platform is focused on using artificial intelligence to get better at personalizing timelines. Twitter still has a ways to go.