On Twitter's contentious timeline, publishing startup The Recount wants to hold hands with brands in news
John Battelle's latest publishing venture The Recount is ramping up its Twitter partnership at a time when many brands are ducking away from difficult news and as Twitter is embroiled in the political fight of its life with the president.
The Recount appears appropriately cast to join that tussle. It is a political news startup, supported by big-name backers, with an editorial focus on the most important subjects of the day—2020 elections, coronavirus, and lately the racial divide in America. The Recount's editorial and advertising fortunes are now closely aligned with Twitter, which could serve as a model for publishers in the future, according to Battelle.
"[This is] different than using Twitter as a promotional place where you hope to push traffic back to your site or build awareness of your brand," Battelle says, during a recent phone interview. "We're actually creating an expression of our brand, native to the environment."
This week, The Recount is announcing a new initiative it calls "Real-Time Recount," which is its Twitter-focused publishing strategy, with Bank of America as the first sponsor. The relationship is an example of how brands are navigating an intense social media landscape in search of safe spaces for their messaging. In this case, Bank of America is helping to carve its own friendly terrain on Twitter.
The Recount has been publishing directly to Twitter, creating short video news segments, Twitter question-and-answer sessions, Twitter polls, Moments, tweetstorms and even engaging K-pop "stans." (K-pop, of course, refers to Korean pop-music, which has a strong following on Twitter, and "stans" means fans. Tagging a K-pop account is usually a guaranteed way to help a tweet takeoff, even for a straight-edged political publisher like The Recount.)
Battelle co-founded The Recount last year with John Heilemann, the veteran political journalist. Fred Wilson, one of Twitter's first investors, is on The Recount's board of directors. They all have close ties to Twitter leadership. "I've been working with Twitter a long time," Battelle says.
Other media companies have stood up news properties on Twitter before, including BuzzFeed and Bloomberg, and they have been met with mixed success. In 2017, Bloomberg launched TicToc, a Twitter-first news service that changed its name to QuickTake, because it could have been confused with the popular Chinese-based app TikTok. This year, BuzzFeed shut down a morning video show on Twitter called "AM to DM."
These are representative of the publishing partnerships Twitter has been fostering since at least 2013, through a program it calls Amplify. Twitter splits ad revenue with the media companies.
"Amplify gives us the bones and the core plumbing for how we can work with marketers but the relationship with Twitter is a little bit more advanced than is standard for an Amplify deal," Battelle says.
Bank of America can review all the videos and tweets it sponsors before sending them into the wild, Battelle says. "We can suggest content that is 100 percent brand safe for them."
Advertisers are concerned about appearing near political content and news, Battelle says. “Holy crap, that's terrifying," Battelle says, channeling brands’ fears.
The Recount is hoping to be that bridge for advertisers to place messages in a newsy environment while providing some guardrails.
"Brands have realized that they have to have a voice, they need to have messaging that matters to a core set of values, not only because they want to look 'woke,’" Battelle says, "but because their customers, their employees and their investors are asking them to stand for something. And when you want your messaging to be in the context of what's happening in the world today, the best place to be is news."
Indeed, Twitter can be a terrifying place. One misstep and a brand could find itself trending for the wrong reasons, at the mercy of a swarm of irate Twitter users. Twitter is central to the most important public conversations, but it is a heated environment. The president of the United States is Twitter's most famous user, and during less excited times that might be a point of pride. But President Trump’s Twitter habits have led to deep disputes about the role of social media in democracy.
In recent weeks, Trump fought with Twitter over its moderation policies after it fact-checked one of his tweets. Twitter also pinned a warning message on Trump's tweet that suggested shooting protesters marching in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Twitter has seen a surge in activity as people flock to the service to stay apprised of current events. In the first quarter, Twitter reported its greatest year-over-year increase in daily users, up 24 percent to 166 million people. At the same time, however, brands grew skittish about advertising. In the first quarter, ad revenue was flat year over year, and in the last three weeks of March, with the coronavirus pandemic in full swing, advertising dropped 27 percent, Twitter reported.
Advertisers are not oblivious to the political winds, and they have been trying to craft messages that match the seriousness of the moment. Part of The Recount's mission is to create what it hopes will be recognized as credible news amid the flurry of misinformation.
"It won't be for all advertisers in the beginning, but the ones who are courageous and can think about how to do it in a way that is consistent with their brand and their values, I think they're going to be rewarded," says Wilson, “because they will get a lot of audience. They will get it in a way, with high frequency and high quality. So, I think that's one of the opportunities and challenges for The Recount is to bring advertisers along with us.”
"Advertisers are used to being in cable news and linear television,” Wilson adds. "They understand what that is. We've got to educate them on how to do it in social platforms, to do it in a way they can be comfortable with."
The Recount’s sponsor Bank of America has dipped its toe into the social media debate, too. Lou Paskalis, senior VP of customer engagement and investment at Bank of America, publicly expressed support for Twitter and Snapchat after they recently penalized Trump's accounts. On Tuesday, Paskalis retweeted a comment from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who said advertisers should hold social media platforms accountable. “Advertisers have to discourage platforms from amplifying dangerous disinformation,” Pelosi said.
“So now the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States is calling on advertisers to use our leverage to compel social media platforms to deliver safer experiences,” Paskalis tweeted.
Meredith Verdone, chief marketing officer at Bank of America, sent an email statement to Ad Age about its sponsorship deal with The Recount. “This kind of innovation in news delivery helps to ensure that quality journalism reaches young, influential and increasingly mobile audiences and keeps them informed throughout the day in a way that we hope other news organizations will emulate,” Verdone said.
The Recount appears to be finding success. The company has raised $13 million and has close to 40 employees. In the past month, The Recount added 55,000 new followers on Twitter as it approaches 200,000, Battelle says.
Twitter declined an interview for this story. But it is clear the platform is looking for new publishing models to bolster its advertising business. Laura Froelich, head of U.S. content partnerships at Twitter, sent an email statement about The Recount. “The Recount provides straightforward, timely context and commentary on political news to engaged audiences on Twitter,” Froelich said. “Our partnership, with the support of Bank of America’s founding sponsorship, means [The Recount] will bring even more content to more people in the most innovative ways.”