In breathless U.S. election, Twitter generates buzz not cash
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The Twitter Inc. logo is shown with the U.S. flag during the company's IPO on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York, November 7, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo
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By Jessica Toonkel and Amanda Becker
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - This year's presidential election might be the perfect microcosm of Twitter's woes.
While some of the most memorable moments of the campaign for the White House have played out on the platform, Twitter has been unable to turn the attention and activity into ad dollars or user growth.
Well suited to quick updates on a noisy and unpredictable campaign, Twitter has been the dominant social media platform in 2016 for candidates, pundits and journalists.
Republican nominee Donald Trump's frequent tweeting of tirades against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, fellow Republicans and the media have been a mainstay of the campaign, setting off furious online debate.
But Twitter Chief Financial Officer Anthony Noto acknowledged when the company reported its quarterly earnings Thursday that the election has had "no noticeable impact" on Twitter's user growth, which analysts say is essential for boosting revenue.
Campaigns and political organizations told Reuters that Twitter is simply not a great medium for political advertising.
It is not as effective as rival Facebook at targeting crucial independent voters, and high-profile Twitter users like Trump and Clinton can use it as a megaphone without buying any advertising.
"We haven't really used Twitter, largely because our core mission is to reach those undecided voters," said Alixandria Lapp, executive director of the House Majority PAC, which supports Democratic U.S. House of Representatives candidates.
A flood of hate speech and misinformation, which Twitter has done little to tamp down, can also be a barrier to ad buys, campaign digital strategists said.
Facebook has emerged as the social media ad platform of choice. It reaches about 94 percent of voters who are registered as independent or are not affiliated with a political party; Twitter only reaches 45 percent of these voters, according to data of mobile users by tracking service Comscore Inc.
Vincent Harris, an Austin-based digital strategist who has worked for U.S. Senator Rand Paul and does some work for Trump, estimated that about 30 percent of his clients' budgets are spent on Facebook, while only 5 percent are spent on Twitter.
A recent survey conducted by his company Harris Media found that 81.6 percent of voters said they spent time on Facebook in the last month, while only 28.7 percent spent time on Twitter.
As Clinton digital strategist Teddy Goff put it, Twitter is the “place to be for obsessively tracking the minute-to-minute of this election” but “Facebook is a much purer platform for message dissemination and talking about the issues voters care about.”
Doug Watts, the national executive director of the pro-Trump Committee for American Sovereignty Super PAC, said: "We use Facebook the most, partially because of the scale, but also when you are talking conservative politics, they have an older audience that fits our target." Twitter, he said, is "not really for advertising per se."
The Trump campaign has promoted tweets and placed ad content, said Jessica Ditto, a campaign spokeswoman. But she said it is difficult to use Twitter to collect donations and email addresses because promoted content does not typically get a lot of clicks.
The perception is a costly one for Twitter. Elections often provide a big financial boost for advertising platforms such as television and radio stations.
In the 2016 contest, CNN has taken in $100 million more than expected due to intense interest in the election, according to David Folkenflik, National Public Radio’s media reporter.
But on Twitter's earnings call on Thursday, CFO Noto said: "We really need to have a (presidential) debate on Twitter every day for it to meaningfully improve the quarterly metrics."
Some advertisers have tried to take advantage of Twitter's central role in the election. Earlier this month, Harris used Twitter to promote a digital campaign that was launched by the conservative anti-immigration group Secure America Now.
More common, though, is the way Clinton operatives use Twitter to engage with what Goff described as a “politically attuned audience.”
The Clinton campaign collects automated donations via its Troll Trump tool, which asks supporters to pledge a small amount to the campaign every time Trump sends a tweet.
The feature is now bringing in $1,588 per tweet, at an average of $11,823 per day, the campaign said.
After Trump called Clinton a “nasty woman” during a presidential debate, her female supporters co-opted the term on Twitter, using #NastyWoman to show their support.
Representative Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, tweeted: “From one #NastyWoman to another, you were an inspiration last night.” Women's health provider Planned Parenthood tweeted this week that “Early voting shows a surge of #NastyWomen at the polls – and we’re just getting started.”
(Additional reporting by Dustin Volz and Emily Stephenson in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Alistair Bell)
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