07/24/2013 01:15 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Can Facebook Break Twitter's Momentum With TV Marketers?

Peter Kafka wrote an interesting piece in AllThingsD this week which asks why Facebook seems to be on the defensive in scooping up TV ad dollars compared to Twitter. After all, he points out, a recent study by Trendrr shows that Facebook had five times the volume around TV discussion that Twitter did in the month of May. More conversations about TV might be taking place on Facebook than on Twitter, but is that really the right way for marketers to compare the two platforms?


While Trendrr's findings are undoubtedly true, particularly given the vast size of Facebook's user base compared to Twitter's (which is still large), Twitter has dominated the discussion of social and TV within the advertising and marketing community lately, in part by focusing on those TV dollars with products like their TV ad targeting tool, which has newly emerged from beta.

The genesis of Twitter's focus on TV dollars is embedded in the behavior of its users and the unique development of its platform. From its start as an invite-only network on college campuses Facebook has placed the emphasis on people who already know each other connecting through their platform. In contrast, while Twitter can be used that way it has always thrived on the idea that following can be a one-way act. This asymmetric model means that Twitter users often follow a slew of folks they may not know personally. While Facebook has tried to replicate this with their Subscribe button, in practice it isn't a typical way to use their site.

In addition to Twitter users following strangers, they also don't have the same expectations of privacy that Facebook users have. Yes, a small number have private accounts but for the most part everyone seems to realize that using Twitter that way kind of defeats the purpose of the platform.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has described it as "the world in your pocket," a neat way to not only point out the increasing importance of mobile usage on the site but the real-time nature of Twitter that makes it so appealing. When a royal baby is being born, an uprising is occurring, a major sports event is taking place, Twitter explodes with conversation and traffic, much of it seen and responded to by people who don't know each other. The introduction of searchable hashtags was a key innovation in allowing people to connect on Twitter's platform regardless of whether they were following someone or not.

Hollywood and Madison Avenue soon noticed that when big movies opened and big events happened on TV, Twitter mirrored and in some cases even anticipated their impact. A company even started up called Bluefin Labs that helped to develop an additional set of social ratings designed to complement Nielsen and ferry more ad bucks to networks, based on Twitter activity. Before long, Twitter bought Bluefin.

Meanwhile, there was no doubt that similar conversations were springing up on Facebook, but the variety of privacy settings users have made teasing out true conversation extremely difficult, if not impossible. More importantly users didn't necessarily experience the real-time surge in conversation volume firsthand that Twitter users saw, and had no way of accessing broader topical conversation the way Twitter users could with hashtags.

Forward to today and Twitter has quickly transformed Bluefin from a measurement solution to an ad targeting tool that can work in tandem with its Amplify program to create a true second screen experience for TV viewers. As Kafka notes, Facebook is forced to play catchup.

Ironically Facebook already has had far more sophisticated ad targeting tools than Twitter for some time now, but as their recent housecleaning of ad products shows, they haven't had the clarity of message that Twitter has brought to the market: Twitter = real-time marketing.

The real-time message is especially salient for TV networks who are eager to forestall the impact of timeshifting and the dreaded specter of cord cutting by shoring up appointment viewing. While it's unclear if all the Twitter buzz around HBO's Game of Thrones and Syfy's Sharknado actually spurred viewership in the moment, it certainly added an extra set of juicy numbers to the overnight ratings for TV execs to tout.

Facebook seems eager to replicate this successful model. In fact, two of the biggest changes to the platform this year -- the addition of Twitter style hashtags and the rollout of Graph Search to U.S. English-speaking users together seems designed to encourage Facebook users to venture beyond their friend zone and discover updates from strangers (who have privacy settings set at a level that allows others to see some of their status updates.)

Marketers have to ask themselves whether it is likely that Facebook users will alter their behavior in great enough numbers to make this truly a rival to Twitter's system. While the volume of TV mentions are indeed likely to be much higher than on Twitter, the ability to interact and experience this on Facebook is still limited by the way users interact on the platform.

This does set up an intriguing counter-strategy for the folks at Facebook to explore. The reality is that appointment viewing and event TV is increasingly limited to things like breaking news, awards shows and sports. Many viewers are time shifting and Netflix is showing that binge watching is becoming a viable alternate distribution model for shows like Orange is The New Black and Arrested Development.

While Twitter can legitimately claim to strike fear in the hearts of those who don't want to miss out on what's happening right NOW, Facebook has the power of the friend connections that aren't all that important for Twitter. If Facebook simply tries to replicate the real-time focus of Twitter when it comes to grabbing those TV dollars, they may actually be selling themselves short.

After all, for many of us a friend's recommendation can carry more weight than a stranger's when it comes to discovering that hot new show. If your success isn't measured by overnights but by aggregate views over time or by subscriptions like HBO or Netflix, real-time may not be that important after all.

So, the total number of actual TV conversations that may be occurring on Facebook versus Twitter may be moot if marketers don't look at the unique attributes of each platform.