Twitter Faces Crucial Ad Test With Live NFL Broadcasts

Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:

Thursday’s Jets-Bills football game marks tech firm’s first time selling ads for live sports video

Thursday night’s matchup between the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills has more at stake than two old foes’ bragging rights. The football game is a crucial test for Twitter Inc.,which is streaming the broadcast as part of an urgent revival effort by Chief Executive Jack Dorsey to regain support from advertisers.

Twitter will show the live CBS feed on its mobile app and website, along with running commentary of tweets and commercials from brands such as Budweiser and Bank of America. It is the first of 10 such Thursday night National Football League games in a $10 million deal Twitter won in April.

Mr. Dorsey, a Twitter co-founder who returned as CEO last year, has made video central to his turnaround effort. The social media company is hoping to attract advertisers’ bigger video ad budgets by becoming a prime destination to watch live events. But it is a tough sell that will require time and strong execution—two things Twitter is short on these days.

With cooling advertising demand, Twitter reported a 20% gain in revenue in the second quarter, its smallest revenue gain and eighth-straight period of declining growth. Investors, growing impatient with years of muddled strategies, have sent shares down about 31% since last October when Twitter announced Mr. Dorsey as the permanent CEO. The shrinking ad gains, flatlining user growth and a lackluster stock has sparked speculation that Twitter is a takeover target. A Twitter spokesman declined to comment.

Executives have long argued that Twitter’s real-time nature sets it apart from rivals, but it struggled to evolve from its roots as a 140-character messaging service. Facebook Inc. has matured from a social network for college students into a media powerhouse, while Snapchat Inc. has transformed its disappearing messaging app into a flourishing content business.

Those companies are also pushing into digital video, but Mr. Dorsey is betting there are enough dollars to go around as consumers increasingly cut the cable-TV cord. The web video advertising market is expected to climb 28% to $9.8 billion in 2016, according to eMarketer.

Twitter spent the summer signing streaming deals with sports leagues including Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League. It has streamed the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, shows from Bloomberg News and sports events like Wimbledon.

The NFL game Thursday marks Twitter’s first time selling ads for live sports video. Ad packages for all 10 games range from $1 million to $8 million, according to a company presentation reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. At $5 million—the same price as a 30-second ad during the Super Bowl—an advertiser gets two commercials per game as well as sponsorship around dozens of video clips of coverage per week.
The NFL deal allots Twitter about 15 in-game local ad spots per game, as well as ads shown ahead of NFL highlights and sponsored broadcasts on Periscope, Twitter’s live-streaming app. Advertisers including Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, Verizon Communications Inc., Sony Corp. and Nestlé SA have signed on.

James Chandler, global mobile director of WPP media-buying unit Mindshare Worldwide, said the excitement around live-streaming could help Twitter play catch-up to Snapchat and Facebook, and enable it to pitch its other video-ad products. Twitter has offered pre-roll video ads for years, and video ads in users’ home feeds since last year.











Some ad buyers who have met with Twitter say they are hesitant to commit to Twitter’s live-streaming events. Most of Twitter’s over 300 million users access the service through the app, meaning they will be viewing the game on the equivalent of roughly a 5-inch TV, or smaller if the phone is turned vertically. How much is such a viewer worth compared with someone enjoying the game on a 60-inch TV from the couch?

“It’s kind of the wild west of the moment” when judging price, said Brandon Rhoten, head of media and digital advertising at fast-food chain Wendy’s Co. Mr. Rhoten said he is pleased with the results of Wendy’s regular video ads that appear in Twitter users’ feeds. But for live-streaming, he would want to measure viewership ratings, the conversation inspired by the ads, and whether viewers absorb the message.

Twitter hopes to strengthen its position by bringing its app to the big screen. It has been in talks with Apple Inc. to bring Twitter’s live-streaming experience to Apple TV, said a person familiar with the matter. Apple and Twitter declined to comment. The New York Times earlier reported Twitter’s discussions with Apple.

One advantage for advertisers with Twitter over television is the ability to target specific users, says Matt Derella, Twitter’s vice president of global sales in charge of selling the NFL ad packages. Ford Motor Co., which has purchased a Twitter-NFL ad package, could show a commercial featuring the Escape SUV to one viewer while pitching its new Fusion to someone else.

In preparation for the NFL debut, Twitter President Adam Bain has asked users for feedback while watching Twitter live streams. Many users are complimentary. One in Ghana said a recent stream of a men’s college soccer match was crystal clear. Others pointed out technical issues, such as a lag time between the gameplay and the commentary in the Twitter feed below.

Mr. Derella said the user experience will change as Twitter learns more about how users are watching the broadcasts and interacting with the accompanying tweets.

Write to Yoree Koh at