In the shadow of Facebook, Twitter loses traction with publishers

Social publishing is becoming a zero-sum game. As media companies clamor for reader attention on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, there’s one place that’s getting less attention: Twitter.

When it created a 10-person team to go after Instagram users, millennial publisher Mic pulled people from graphics, edit and yes, Twitter. Matt Karolian, director of audience engagement at The Boston Globe, said the Globe used to spend a lot more time live tweeting in past election cycles. But this time, the main focus was engaging people on Facebook, because, he said, “It’s all happening on Facebook.”

Twitter’s woes are nothing new, but it has long had legions of boosters in media companies, filled with Twitter-crazed journalists who spend an inordinate amount of time tweeting news tidbits, trawling for information or simply procrastinating.

Now, Twitter has “lost the attention battle,” said Paul Berry, founder and CEO of RebelMouse, which helps publishers amplify their content on social. “Five, 10 years ago, there was a lot of emphasis building Twitter followings, traffic. For new media companies, Twitter is the afterthought and the side job. It used to be one person on Facebook, one person on Twitter, and now it’s three people on Facebook and half a person on Twitter. We don’t see any media companies on our platform who are either having success driving traffic on Twitter or have that as a goal anymore.”

Twitter is at its core a news platform, so that news outlets are cooling on it is notable, to say the least. Nick Ascheim, svp of digital at NBC News, said on the Digiday Podcast that while Twitter is still important for NBC’s journalists and talent, NBC News as an organization isn’t investing in new Twitter opportunities. “[We] don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Twitter,” he shrugged.

Twitter, naturally, disputed the notion that it was on the wane with publishers, saying the use of its SnappyTV product for uploading broadcasts was growing, as was publisher revenue through its ad monetization product, Amplify (though it didn’t quantify the growth). A spokesperson emailed: “We continue to see the amount of high-quality publisher content on Twitter grow as a result of the long-term relationships we have with publishers and content producers through a variety of content partnerships like Twitter Amplify, Amplify Publisher Program and our live-streaming partnerships. Not only has video been our top revenue-generating ad format for the last two quarters, but we continue to work with top publishers to build tools that allow sustainable reach and monetization opportunities.”

Twitter might still feel big for journalists who spend all day on the platform, and fully 59 percent of Twitter users do get news on the service, third after Reddit and Facebook. But only 16 percent of U.S. adults use Twitter in the first place, and only 9 percent of adults get news there. Compare that to Facebook, which is used by 67 percent of U.S. adults, with 44 percent of U.S. adults getting news there, according to Pew Research Center.

As a traffic driver, Twitter is abysmal, even topped by Yahoo. The typical publisher gets only 1.5 percent of its traffic from Twitter, compared to about 40 percent each from Facebook and Google, according to Parsely.

While Twitter limps along, Facebook, Instagram and for some, Snapchat are hogging publisher attention, with their bigger audiences, stronger visual features and better advertising products. Google, too, is getting renewed attention from publishers.

This shift in attention is happening is even as Twitter has rolled out products to encourage publishers to use the platform more, including Moments and Publish. Twitter’s live video product, Periscope, had a moment with publishers but has since been overshadowed by Facebook’s rival video product. According to Socialbakers, use of Facebook Live soared to 51 percent of the top publishers in September from 10 percent in January, while publishers’ use of Periscope declined to 10 percent from 14 percent in the same timeframe. Meanwhile, Facebook has cut big checks to at least some publishers to produce live video.

“We’re doing a lot more with visual storytelling, and Twitter just placed the wrong bet,” Karolian said. “Of all the platforms, Twitter does the worst with that. Twitter early on tapped into the ability to discuss events as they happen. That was their competitive advantage against Facebook. That has changed significantly with Facebook Live.”

Not all publishers are giving up on Twitter; far from it. Newsrooms like Bloomberg Media and CNN still consider it essential, variously, for disseminating news, newsgathering and to engage TV audiences following an event through a second screen. Twitter got BuzzFeed to livestream its election night coverage. Bloomberg Media’s Twitter referral traffic can be up to 40 percent of what it gets from Facebook, for example, while at CNN, “We look at it as a real-time news-gathering platform and are looking to it for video views and live video. We know it’s often the jumping off point when people have heard about something,” said Samantha Barry, head of social news for CNN.

The USA Today Network has actually been prioritizing Twitter as a way to get out its videos and make money on them with Amplify.

“It’s easy to monetize video on Twitter in a way that it’s not on other social platforms,” said Jamie Mottram, senior director of social content for the USA Today Network. “We just tweet our mobile videos and share the revenue with Twitter, not unlike Instant Articles on Facebook, or Discover on Snapchat. We don’t have to sell it ourselves.”

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