Town Hall With Obama Was Only the Beginning of the Platform’s Election-Year Audience Grab | Adweek
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Will 2012 Be Defined by Twitter?

Town hall with Obama was only the beginning of the platform’s election-year audience grab

Illustration: GlueKit

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Few celebrity endorsements are as beneficial to a brand as the presidential imprimatur. What clout—or, rather, Klout—the commander in chief lacks compared with Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber he makes up for with his power to enact a historical event.

So it was with great emphasis on the historic that Twitter hosted last week’s first-of-its-kind Twitter Town Hall, in which co-founder Jack Dorsey read questions submitted in fewer than 140 characters for President Obama to answer (for as long as he liked). A win for the president, who got to push his message without interruption, it was an even bigger win for Twitter’s brand, as the event was carried live on both CNN and MSNBC.

But judging by Dorsey’s post-town hall tweet, this was just the beginning of Twitter’s political ambitions: “How can we make Twitter @TownHall better in the future?” he asked, suggesting more to come. “And not just for the U.S. government, but any government.”

In an email to Adweek, company rep Matt Graves added, “2012 will be a major election cycle, not only in the U.S. but around the world. We believe Twitter can be a valuable platform for anyone running for office, and look forward to seeing the creative ways campaigns will use the service over the next year.”

Graves refused to say whether Twitter might someday host a presidential debate, but given that culling questions from ordinary citizens has become the marketing ploy à la mode, it’s not inconceivable. The perception of spontaneity and authenticity that has made town hall meetings attractive to presidents since 1977 has become even more attractive to media companies seeking to increase viewer “engagement” during debates. Twitter, too, is a media company, and the more it can get viewers to ask questions and make comments on its platform, rather than on CNN.com or MSNBC.com, the better.

What was historic about last Wednesday’s event, then, was not the Q&A—which was like any town hall Q&A session, only online—but the fact that it was the first major event that Twitter created for people to tweet about. And even if it’s the campaigns that come up with “creative ways” to use the platform for special #AskGingrich or #AskBachmann events in the future, the payoff for Dorsey and Co. will be no less significant.

The problem is that Q&As are interesting only when a moderator pushes candidates with follow-up questions. Like Mark Zuckerberg before him (Facebook hosted its own town hall in April), Dorsey merely read questions and let Obama answer them—or not answer them—without any response or objection. Coming up with content worthy of prime time might require Twitter to outsource the interviewer’s seat to an old-media hand capable of pressing for a real answer.