Parth Jalundhwala is a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He’s also a data scientist at Twitter.
It’s not as unlikely a pairing as one would expect. Jiu-jitsu requires an analytical mind, forcing practitioners to think five moves ahead of opponents.
Jiu-jitsu is also a confidence-builder, and that might be just what Twitter, unapologetic about its shortcomings, needs as it reclaims its swagger. Yes, it’s smaller than Facebook. Yes, there are heated conversations on the platform that might frighten a buttoned-up brand. As Jalundhwala says: “Everyone gets a chance to express themselves.”
This week, as part of Advertising Week, Twitter is showcasing its newly reconstituted brand strategy team, which it is renaming Twitter Next. Jalundhwala started seven months ago as the first data scientist working directly with brands. Carmen Kiew, who has been a Twitter power user for years as a semi-celebrity in local sports broadcasting in San Francisco, came on board eight weeks ago to help teach brands how to use Twitter.
Alex Josephson is the global head of Twitter Next. During a recent visit to Twitter’s New York offices, Josephson showed off some new ad products coming out of the brand strategy team.
“We’re not the biggest platform,” Josephson says. “We don’t have the biggest audience, but we have an audience that is uniquely influential.”
That type of self-assured attitude has helped Twitter turn around its business in the past year. It generated $727 million in ad revenue in the second quarter, an increase of 21 percent year-over-year. Its fortunes have been reflected in the stock price, which at this writing is at $43 a share, up from $28 at the start of the year. The company is valued at more than $33 billion.
The brand strategy team is partly responsible for the more positive direction. Twitter had been viewed as radioactive for years, especially with the general political climate and the president of the United States being its most visible user. Even before President Trump, the platform had been wrestling with trolls and harassment issues. Many brands were struggling with whether they should dive headfirst into it, or perhaps just avoid the Twitter torrent altogether.
Jalundhwala says Twitter has studied what works best for marketers, and found that taking a stand is good for brands. Specifically, Jalundhwala says Twitter looked at Colin Kaepernick, the firebrand former quarterback, and his Nike campaign from last year, as an example. Nike took a risk even working with Kaepernick because he was seen as being blackballed by the National Football League for his advocacy of criminal justice reform and anti-police brutality.
The NFL didn’t work with him, but Nike did, and it was a big topic of conversation on Twitter. “There are lot of issues out there that matter, and they matter to Twitter audiences,” Jalundhwala says. “And Twitter is in a unique place and a unique platform where marketers can actually tap into that audience.”
“A purpose-driven campaign really comes to life on our platform,” Jalundhwala says.
James Bennett is VP of media and social at Wendy’s, which is known as one of the more sassy brands on Twitter. The account is always engaged in banter with customers and other brands.
Two years ago, Wendy’s made headlines with “Nuggs for Carter,” when it told a fan he could have free chicken nuggets for life if his tweet reached 18 million retweets.
Today, Bennett says Twitter’s confidence is starting to show in its own work with brands. Twitter used to seem reserved about its place in the ad marketplace, Bennett says, but not anymore. “They have fully embraced this idea that they’re a big brand and they’re legit,” Bennett says in a recent phone interview. “They not only give access to the Twitter platform itself, but that opens doors for so many things outside Twitter. They’re influential in broader pop culture, and across other social media platforms as well.”
So, how is Wendy’s using Twitter today? The fast-food restaurant is getting some of its best menu ideas from the service. In May, Chance the Rapper, a.k.a. Chancelor Jonathan Bennett, tweeted at Wendy’s to bring back spicy chicken nuggets.
In August, Wendy’s did. “Twitter was such a valuable partner in that entire conversation,” says Bennett (no relation to Chance the Rapper).
The brand strategy team, now Twitter Next, also works with a number of chain restaurants, coming up with unique ways to analyze their business priorities, according to Josephson. “We have direct access to the data and we work with brands for hyper-specific requests,” Josephson says.
For instance, Josephson helped one fast-food company understand how customers feel when stores run out of certain menu items, like a signature soft drink. Twitter can predict when stores are running low, based on the irrationally depressed mood among people tweeting about it. “When [the drink] runs out,” Josephson says, “those tweets are 24 percent sadder than when people tweet about losing their wallets, their keys or their phones, which is fairly ridiculous.”
Twitter is also using the brand strategy team to experiment with advertisers. The platform, with 139 million daily active users, might be dwarfed by Facebook, with more than 2 billion daily users, but it’s learning to do more with less.
At Twitter Next, they are working on a way to target ads to people based on the photos in their tweets, not just the words. Josephson gave a sneak peek of the photo-recognition technology.
“If you’re Purina and you want to target pets, here is the most qualified audience possible,” Josephson says, “people actually tweeting photos of their pets, but the text of the tweet wouldn’t tell you that.”
Here’s how it works: Twitter normally can target ads and build profiles about users based on the words in their tweets. With machine-learning techniques, Twitter is building a way to get the same quality of data just from photos. That way, if a person doesn’t even type words or only uses emojis, Twitter can still understand their interests.
Advertisers could potentially reach audiences four times as large by building targeting profiles using photos instead of just text, Josephson says. A group of 100,000 pet lovers could grow into 400,000 by including interests gleaned from photos.
Twitter Next also has been working on a product for marketers called “brand reminders,” which it launched in the past quarter and now has about 70 advertisers testing. The program lets marketers sign up consumers to receive updates via tweet about product launches, movie trailers and other announcements. Twitter users just have to hit the heart button on a brand’s “reminder” tweet to enroll in the follow-up messages.
Twitter Next calls the Next unit “the lab,” Josephson says, and it’s easy to see why. The brand strategy team is where the company is trying to experiment more with marketers. HBO has used its services, as has No Name brand, KFC, BET and others.
“We have all this public conversation happening on the platform,” Josephson says. “Those are signals that we can use to surface behavioral patterns, to surface insights that can inform a campaign strategy or even more of a macro-business decision for a brand.”
Like which type of chicken is trending.?