Trending Wars: Facebook Versus Twitter

By Satrajit Sen , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Digital | February 13, 2014
Facebook recently launched a new feature called 'trending'. While users are busy experiencing it, we take a look at its viability from a branding standpoint and compare it to Twitter's existing trending model, a rather popular one.

To trend on social media is like being on the front page of a newspaper. Social media trends allow businesses to leverage technology, thereby levelling out the playing field for smaller brands. Social platforms like Twitter and Google+ use the 'trending' feature to provide information about 'what's happening'. Facebook recently launched its 'trending stories' feature, replicating Twitter's pre-existing model.

Saurabh Parmar

Sanjay Mehta

Rajiv Dhingra

How viable is it from a branding perspective? Well, the move does serve to bring Facebook closer to real-time conversations, a zone that Twitter currently dominates, especially in the minds of advertisers. Facebook is now better placed to capture some of Twitter's cache as the go-to site for breaking news and culturally relevant conversations.

Twitter's trending topics feature, titled 'Trends', displays top stories and marketing messages of the day. It is lucrative ad territory; brands can pay to gain a spot bang in the middle of Twitter babble. Across social media, tech companies are starting to sell trending territory, like the new ad products from Tumblr and of course, the recent one from Facebook.

Will India Buy?

Brands have understood that getting a hashtag to trend (yes, it's also a verb now!) on Twitter is extremely simple. Anyone with a following of 5,000-10,000 people can float a tweet and simply re-tweet all the replies it fetches. The moment one starts re-tweeting replies, people start to appreciate being re-tweeted and virtual onlookers, if you will, also start replying in the hope of being re-tweeted. Consequently, the hashtag starts to trend. To enjoy this chain reaction, brands end up paying the platform, as well as an 'influencer' (someone with high Twitter clout), to help set things into motion.

Twitter, in India, reportedly sells Promoted Trends to brands at Rs 5.5 lakh for 24 hours - the hashtag chosen by the brand using this option appears at the top of the platform's 'trending topics' for a period of 24 hours. Question is, will Facebook announce plans to sell sponsored trends? And will marketers grab the opportunity?

While one would assume they would, some experts disagree. No brand will be confident enough to invest in it till the waters are tested, they reason. Saurabh Parmar, CEO, Brandlogist, a brand consultancy, says, "I don't think trends will be used as a direct revenue source, at least not until Facebook gets the product right via various iterations," he says.

Parmar adds about the feature, "It will help engage users more, get them to spend more time on the site and will also help Facebook's objective of being the ultimate news destination. Currently, Facebook is the world's largest medium, bigger than any newspaper or TV channel."

Early glimpses of Facebook Trends don't really seem to be showing absolutely "current" or "breaking" stories and experts think there is a fundamental conflict between the way Facebook shows stories in the News Feed (and consequently, the way people react to them) and the way Trends should happen.

Sanjay Mehta, joint CEO, Social Wavelength, a social media agency, explains, "While one would expect the most recently shared stories to be fresh news, there is a chance slightly older stories are also being shared and responded to. For example, if Nadal beat Federer yesterday, but there is strong buzz around it - people are sharing, commenting - then such stories will keep showing up on the News Feeds."

The hope, though, is that the trending topic will definitely increase discoverability of content as users are likely to click on it. Also, agencies and brands will have one more parameter to judge the effectiveness of their campaigns on. This will definitely get brands to use more hashtags in their posts and keep contests at the centre of their Facebook marketing.

Who has an upper hand?

Facebook's version of trending topics is a little different from Twitter's. Facebook shows the trending topics and also provides an explanation for why they are trending. Twitter, on the other hand, only lists the popular topics on the website, without any details about the reasons they are popular.

Trending on Facebook is currently based on people's connections and pages that have publicly shared updates bearing a specific keyword. Twitter, on the other hand, shows city-wise, country-wise and global trends - a more "evolved" system, as some experts put it. It also shows customised trends, based on the people one follows and well, hashtags (also a verb in this context!). Also twitter has 10 results on trending (as opposed to Facebook's seven) and has an ad unit called promoted trends as well.

Rajiv Dingra, CEO, WatConsult, a digital and social media agency, opines, "At this moment, I would say Facebook doesn't score bigger with the feature. But Facebook does have scale. I don't think Twitter stands to lose. Facebook, for the longest time, has been copying Twitter's features; yet Twitter has grown in popularity. Twitter is at the forefront of innovation, and audience within the cultural fabric of India - be it Bollywood, politics or even the media community - is always on it. This is one big difference where Facebook has a long way to go."

Besides, the open nature of Twitter - where, almost always, anyone can follow anyone - is considered to be a huge benefit over the "privacy policy paralysis" that Facebook suffers from. "The nature of the products is different," states Parmar, "Facebook Trending aggregates the headlines of the day, while Twitter Trending Topics check the pulse of the moment. Also since most content on Twitter is public, I see opinions of people I know or have heard of, whereas Facebook, because of its privacy settings, will be more restrictive and thus less personalised."

Twitter stories are more fast-moving, and mostly current. Hence, Twitter trends reflect more timely stories. Facebook's efforts appear to be in sync with its goal of being a one-stop news source rather than a brand medium.

Says Social Wavelength's Mehta, "FB will keep tweaking this feature, like it does for all its features. Once this fine tuning happens, maybe it will show better Trending stories."

Possible Suitors

For brands, the key objective on all social platforms remains consumer engagement, something for which Twitter reigns supreme, especially for broadcasting content and the opportunities for delivering promotions on this platform.

More brands are launching Twitter accounts every day and are leveraging the platform well to connect with consumers. Brands from categories like auto, FMCG, telecom, technology, e-commerce, retail, BFSI and media have been at the forefront as far as using Twitter and promoting campaigns through hashtag trends goes.

So, if Facebook decides to monetise the trending feature and sell it to brands (which in all probability it will) will the same bunch of brands gravitate towards it? Industry watchers opine that publishers or brands talking about "current interest topics" will be best suited for using Facebook Trends.

"I think all brands that are part of daily consumer life like banks, FMCG, auto and telecom will definitely see value," predicts Dingra of WatConsult. He adds, however, "Since Facebook describes the trend at the onset, once I know what the trend is all about, I may be less tempted to click and go through all the updates; this is where twitter gets increased engagement."

The overall sense is that given Facebook's popularity in India, and its advanced stage of monetisation (as compared to Twitter) in this market, a single feature move is not going to affect Twitter to a great extent. If anything, it is only going to increase brands' marketing spends on Facebook… brands that have been holding the same money back and spending it on media beyond Facebook and Twitter.

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