Twitter’s news overtures

Why is Twitter now offering social media monetisation to news publishers? Also: packaged food brands struggle to deal with social media accusations.

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Twitter has a special relationship with the news. The ‘digital town square’ is the preferred social media platform for both news outlets and journalists. But news and social media have been in a toxic on-again, off-again relationship for at least a decade now. So why, in 2023, is Elon Musk offering news publishers that tired promise of monetisation via social media? That’s my first story today. The second one deals with how viral social media content on packaged goods’ ads and claims can bite companies hard and fast.

Let’s dive in.

Twitter: Back to the future

Abhijit S. Nair/Unsplash

It’s been over a decade since social media changed news distribution and prompted a brand of brash, internet-focused journalism primed for likes, shares, and impressions. The result is damaging. Publishers realised too late that they were giving away content and audiences to Big Tech companies for little in return. At least two of those internet-focused organisations, Buzzfeed News and Vice World News, have shut down. Vice Media may even file for bankruptcy.

Today, everyone in the news (and content business) wants a direct relationship with their audience. This is what Elon Musk is offering publishers: a chance to earn money every time a user clicks on a news link.

This isn’t new. Google worked on something similar in 2009, bundling several publications into a single subscription and allowing payments of as little as one cent in the US.

Facebook’s turbulent history with news publishers is also well known. In the early 2010s, it invested heavily in courting news publishers so it could curate their content for its users’ News Feed. This included a $300 million local journalism project and a 2015 mega-deal with nine major publishers to host “Instant Articles”, which displayed stories and other content directly on the platform rather than a link redirecting the user to the news outlet’s website. Facebook said it would share ad revenue with publishers and also allow them to embed ads in these Instant Articles.

Here’s the problem. Facebook loaded Instant Articles faster than a mobile website and seemingly offered publishers its audience. But none of this allowed the audience to leave Facebook. So whose audience is it anyway? If Facebook decided that news was no longer a priority, publishers would be left with few retained users. That’s what happened in 2018, when Facebook announced it would change users’ News Feed to focus on friends and family over media and brands. And in July last year, it told US publishers that it would no longer pay for their content on Facebook’s News tab.

That effectively clobbered the relationship between news and social media. Now, more than ever, they’re locked in competition with each other for an audience, especially as everyone dips their toes into new formats, including short video.

Twitter’s announcement begs the question: why now?

For one, Twitter is not the same as Google and Facebook. It is the nerve centre of online activity for almost all news organisations, their reporters and editors, and even newsworthy corporate and government functionaries. India’s government takes it very seriously, as do our top news organisations. Just this week, ANI News and NDTV complained that their handles, with 7.6 million and 17.7 million followers respectively, were suspended without a credible explanation. In ANI’s case, Twitter reportedly said, bizarrely, that the handle violated the platform’s minimum age requirement of 13 years. NDTV has a “gold tick” account, meaning it is a verified business. Twitter restored both handles sometime later.

But Twitter is not known for driving a lot of traffic to external websites. Just like Facebook, it has no incentive to do so. However, it has been building (and shuttering) several products for publishers. It acquired newsletter platform Revue in January 2021, then shut it down a year later. It also acquired ad-free news subscription service Scroll for an undisclosed amount in May 2021, but Musk shuttered it a few months later, folding it into the Twitter Blue subscription programme.

Musk has also launched subscriptions to let creators monetise content on Twitter (it already had a version of this earlier) and promised not to take a cut for the first year. And the platform is bracing for competition from newsletter publishing platform Substack, which introduced a Twitter-like product called Notes in April.

In short, there is a lot more publishing, distributing, and marketing that news publishers and individual journalists can do on Twitter than on Facebook and Google. Which is why Musk may want to offer them that broken promise again—let’s build a news audience together.

News organisations are a crucial part of Twitter’s power user base, and it would naturally want to retain them. Already, some large news organisations were caught in the tussle as Twitter zapped away legacy blue ticks, including that of The New York Times. Most of them now have a gold tick, which reportedly sells for $1,000 a month (over ₹80,000 a month in India). It stands to reason that Musk will want to hold on to this lucrative user base.

But do people even click news links on Twitter? In 2020, the platform started serving a new prompt to users to “read it before you Tweet it”. This was primarily to stop the flood of misinformation and panic during the pandemic. But Twitter said the feature also got people to click and read a link 40% more before sharing.

If Twitter needs to prompt users to read an article for free, can it get them to pay to click and read?

We’ve known for a while now that Twitter’s algorithm de-prioritises tweets with an external link, as this experiment by marketing agency Hootsuite found in 2021; that was confirmed when Musk released the source code of Twitter’s algorithm on GitHub earlier this year. So, while pay-per-click might work for some publishers looking to try out micropayments, the algorithm will work against them. Not to mention that eventually, sharing revenue from these micropayments will not be profitable for anybody unless both Twitter and news publishers can scale up to massive volumes that justify low prices.

The next logical step? Maybe embedding articles within Twitter so that users don’t leave the platform, and publishers get some real estate for their content. Maybe even throw in a few ads or a subscription payment gateway. Sounds an awful lot like what Facebook promised in the 2010s.

And we’ve seen how that turned out.

Food brands’ social media problem

Ravi Sharma/Unsplash

Back in the day, viral claims about plastic in Kurkure or pesticide in Coca-Cola spread mostly through word of mouth. Or through ‘FW:Fwd:FWD:Fw:” chain mails with photos and videos in your Yahoo! Mail or Hotmail inbox back in the 2000s. In essence, if a brand was subject to criticism or outright misinformation, it was easier to tackle it with print and TV advisories, maybe an on-ground campaign or two.

That’s no longer the case. Short videos, posts, and threads go viral instantly, while a crisis communication plan requires too much time and money to effectively counteract such claims.

Cue blunt force.

Last month,Cadbury India sent Instagram creator Revant Himatsingka a legal notice for his video pointing out that Cadbury Bournvita has about 50% sugar per serve, according to its own labelling. He’s taken the video down.

The impact of sugar on health, particularly its link with childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes, is well known. Paediatricians and nutritionists have long accused malted food drinks (Horlicks, Complan, Boost, Bournvita, etc.) of misleading the public with claims of adding protein and micronutrients to children’s diets. Given such context—and a subsequent complaint alleging that Bournvita falsely claims it improves children’s health—the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights asked Cadbury parent Mondelez India to withdraw all “misleading” Bournvita ads.

Mondelez has rejected the claims. But its rapid legal action against Revant Himatsingka may have put a target on its back.

On April 22, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) announced it had set up an Advertising Monitoring Committee (pdf) to keep an eye on all “advertisements and claims” made by packaged food manufacturers, including on social media and e-commerce platforms. Although the release did not name Bournvita and the Himatsingka case, it referred to “various media reports including on social media about various health claims”.

And sure enough, a week later, it announced that it had found another 32 cases of food brands (pdf) violating the FSSAI’s Food Safety and Standards (Advertising and Claims) Regulations, 2018. This set of rules has elaborate nutritional prescriptions, down to the gram and kilocalorie, on what a packaged food brand can or cannot claim in its advertising based on its ingredient list and back-of-the-pack labels. Apart from defining what can qualify as “low fat” and “high protein” in an ad, it also has specific rules about using words like “natural” and “traditional” when advertising any packaged food and drink across mediums (see the pdf of the rules here).

Social media (influencer and content) marketing has made this regulatory issue more complex than it used to be. Authorities like FSSAI and the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) will find it hard to constantly monitor content that food and beverage brands put out regularly across a growing number of platforms. In ASCI’s case, it can at best issue guidelines or follow up with violators, but it has no legal authority.

For brands, social media has become as big a threat as an opportunity. Action against someone making negative claims can lead to the Streisand effect, as Mondelez found out. But also, large brands will increasingly find valid criticism mixed with clear dis/misinformation that snowballs into boycotts, complaints, and stern knuckle-rapping action from regulators.

In 2018, PepsiCo’s Kurkure faced allegations of putting plastic in their products. PepsiCo took Facebook and YouTube to court to have a long list of posts, links, and videos taken down. That same year, ITC also filed several FIRs against videos claiming that its Aashirvaad atta has plastic in it. In 2021, dosa batter maker iD Foods filed a police complaint against a social media rumour that the company secretly used animal extracts; it also ran an ad campaign to show consumers how it makes its food.

And, of course, there is the infamous 2015 Maggi lead controversy, where the country’s biggest packaged noodles brand was banned for over a year. That involved an FSSAI lab and took a court order to settle. Nestle took a ₹450 crore (~$55 million) hit as it was forced to destroy 30,000 tonnes of unsold Maggi and its market share declined.

In 1993, PepsiCo was engaged in a high-velocity PR campaign in the US to combat hoax claims that its Diet Pepsi bottles had syringes and other foreign objects. PepsiCo ran full-page ads in over 200 newspapers across the US, along with a TV special on the inner workings of the company’s crisis group that managed the situation.

But even that sort of effort just doesn’t cut it anymore. Apart from taking all possible legal routes, brands need to make as much noise in as many directions as one viral piece of content on social media does. It must be sharp enough (or loud enough) to drown out any claims it deems false or damaging. But it’s easy to trip up and have public opinion turn against you while you go about protecting your brand. What works best is a transparent, verifiable way to let anyone examine all health claims you make about your product…

…and a social media game that’s on point.

Last Scroll Down📲

Salvino Fidacaro/Unsplash

Big Tech week: Meta and Google both announced their financial results for the quarter ended March 2023 this week. Meta reported revenue growth (after three consecutive quarters of decline), higher daily active users, and lower costs after aggressive rounds of layoffs. But it warned that operational losses from its Reality Labs division will continue to rise. It’s also raising $8.5 billion via a bond offering. Google also reported higher revenue (pdf), although Search had marginal growth, and ad revenue from network ads fell. Google told analysts that Search ad spending fell in the finance, and media and entertainment verticals. AI-based competition in Search has Google on edge; and right now, it does not have the best chatbot product in the market.

Meanwhile, Snap has hired two former Meta executives to expand its ads business. Snap reported a drop in quarterly revenues but higher daily active users worldwide (pdf).

Gaps in the garden hedge: Spotify will put some of its original podcasts on other platforms, Semafor reported. For now, this is restricted to shows produced by Gimlet Media, the studio it bought in 2019. Per a company statement, Spotify wants broader distribution for some of its hit shows so it can potentially earn more ad revenue. The era of platform-exclusive content might be coming to a close, after years of Big Tech platforms spending $$$ to build exclusive content libraries. Podcasting is still not profitable for Spotify.

Adieu: For years now, the Walt Disney Company has been looking to exit Tata Play, its direct-to-home television joint venture with the Tatas. That might soon happen. Tata Play has received market regulator Sebi’s approval to launch its initial public offering (IPO), pending an updated draft red herring prospectus. It’s one of the first companies to file its IPO papers confidentially since Sebi introduced the option late last year. The issue may be worth ₹3,000 crore (~$367 million), Business Standard reports.

Show me the hits: Ajay Bijli, managing director of India’s biggest multiplex chain PVR, is in Vegas for a global conference of studios and movie exhibitors. In a keynote address, Bijli asked filmmakers to prioritise releasing films in cinemas for a long enough time before putting them up on streaming platforms. Bijli even pushed for a longer theatrical window to make it squarely the first means of monetisation for everyone in the film business.

Backstreet’s back alright: Spotify has reportedly said that daily searches for Backstreet Boys have doubled on the platform since February, when the boy band first announced it will perform in Mumbai and Delhi in May. The official Backstreet Boys playlist has had an 88% surge in streams; and I Want It That Way is (understandably) still the most streamed track.

Rein it in: India’s insurance regulator IRDAI has asked insurance firms to come up with social media policies for its employees to restrain them from revealing “unverified” or “confidential” information. Some of the prescriptions are fairly sweeping—employees can’t respond to customer complaints and must send them to their company’s compliance and communications departments (okay). But IRDAI also wants employees to not publicly criticise their employers anywhere.

Trumpet 🎺

This is one of only 30 leather jackets that went up on sale this week, personally signed by Shah Rukh Khan and priced at just above ₹2 lakh (~$2,400) apiece. The drop was part of a celebrity collaboration between alcohol brand D’Yavol and SRK (plus his son Aryan Khan) for limited drops of “luxury streetwear”—hoodies, T-shirts, and other merchandise, all branded with a blazing red ‘X’. This jacket was the first to sell out.

Celebrity collabs are very common. The last hotly-anticipated one in India that comes to mind is the H&M x Sabyasachi collection, which dropped in 2021 and started at a very affordable ₹1,499 (~$17). D’Yavol X’s tees, in contrast, are going for about ₹20,000 (~$244) at their cheapest. The collection seems to be positioned in an aggressively “alpha male” zone, right down to the black-heavy colour palette, the party club-like dark setting, and the collection’s description: “In a world of sheep, D’Yavol X is crafted for wolves”. Phew. The wolves are lapping up the goods despite that ridiculous pricing; the entire drop is sold out.

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