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The secret company behind Twitter's TV takeover

Mass Relevance puts Twitter in front of television audiences, boosting the social network's public profile and altering its perception as a place for more than pointless babble.

Jennifer Van Grove Former Senior Writer / News
Jennifer Van Grove covered the social beat for CNET. She loves Boo the dog, CrossFit, and eating vegan. Her jokes are often in poor taste, but her articles are not.
Jennifer Van Grove
6 min read
Mass Relevance sits between two power players, Twitter creator Jack Dorsey and President Barack Obama, in a first-of-its-kind social media event. Mass Relevance

Twitter enters millions of homes on a nightly basis with the help of a secret weapon: Mass Relevance, the most important company at the intersection of social media and television that you've never heard of.

Founded in December 2010, the Austin-based startup is responsible for nearly every tweet that makes it to your television screen. And though Mass Relevance's CEO and co-founder Sam Decker would never take credit for turning the 7-year-old social network into the world's digital water cooler, his company puts Twitter in front of the masses in a way that has boosted its public profile and changed its perception as a place for more than pointless babble.

When Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter's co-founders, hosted the White House's Twitter Town Hall in July 2011, Mass Relevance helped pluck the best Twitter-posed questions with the #AskObama hashtag for him to ask President Barack Obama. Both CNN and ABC turned to Mass Relevance to sift through tweets during the spectacle that was the Royal Wedding. And when "Bachelor Nation" opines about the dating show's cast on Twitter, Mass Relevance finds the often hilarious observations and puts them on air at a moment's notice.

"The vast majority of social content you see on TV is powered by our platform," Decker told CNET.

Strictly speaking, Mass Relevance is software-as-a-service for brands, agencies, and producers. It's a technology platform that instantly scans content flowing through the APIs of social media companies, Twitter in particular, and filters it according to the client's desires. The rapid filtering piece, which is far cooler than it sounds, is what gives television producers like Nicolle Yaron of "The Voice" the confidence to put viewer comments on display and to let audiences vote live on a song for contestants to sing.

The platform, using real-time filters, sifts through hundreds of thousands of tweets, dumps the retweets and replies, purges the content producers know they don't want -- profane tweets, for instance -- and then presents what's left in a queue where someone manually approves the tweets to go on screen. The system can also collect and analyze data for visualizations and power audience polls.

Mass Relevance CEO Sam Decker poses with Katy Perry who turned to his platform to power fan interactions at her concerts. Mass Relevance

Mass Relevance can do more than broadcast integrations. It's often the company behind the tweets, photos, and fan content that make it on to Jumbotrons at sporting events and concerts. Katy Perry's California Dreams tour in 2011 used the company, at Perry's personal instance, to incorporate audience interactions at the pop singer's live shows. The social activity was also syndicated back to her Web site.

Twitter is the brand, but Mass Relevance is its business-to-business counterpart, Altimeter Group digital advertising and media analyst Rebecca Lieb told CNET. The startup is one of Altimeter's clients.

"Mass Relevance liberated tweets from the small screen and is throwing them into the real world," she said.

Twitter and Mass Relevance have been joined at the hip in a symbiotic relationship since they formed a partnership in 2011. Mass Relevance feeds off the firehouse of Twitter's tweet stream to sell clients on six-figure packages, while the information network gains invaluable exposure through the former's rolodex of network and media executives. Clients like Yaron get to ride alongside the power couple to bring audiences into their shows and inflate ratings.

Earlier this year, a Nielsen study found that the volume of Twitter chatter directly corresponds to significant changes in live TV ratings 29 percent of the time, a fact Yaron said she's witnessed firsthand.

Decker, a word-of-mouth marketing veteran who has published books on the subject and worked for Apple and Dell, tells the story of Twitter and Mass Relevance coming together as a tale where the planets aligned. Decker, after resigning from a startup he co-founded called BazaarVoice in 2010, met with Eric Falcao and Brian Dainton, engineers who had developed a technology for filtering tweets. Twitter was already interested in the technology to get its content onto TV.

"None of us knew anything about TV," Decker said, "but we knew a lot about digital and social and building scale."

With Twitter expressing interest, Decker, Falcao, and Dainton moved forward and founded Mass Relevance. MTV and NBC were the company's first big customers. Ten months later, Twitter signed on as an official partner. Though largely anticipating demand from marketers, the company's year-one resume primarily included projects for media, sports, and TV clients.

The Twitter Town Hall in 2011, powered by Mass Relevance, incorporated audience participation on a massive scale. Mass Relevance

And then, still in its first year and with just a staff of 10 people, Twitter proposed something crazy: a Town Hall with President Obama, with Mass Relevance managing audience participation, to be put together in just two weeks. It was a make-or-break moment.

"We didn't realize it but this was our whole company on the line here," Decker said. The event, however, turned out to be a big success and proved the value of audience interaction on a large scale. "It was a big turning point for the company."

Two years later, Mass Relevance, which has raised $5 million in funding, now has a team of 110 people, a total of 300 clients, and claims more than 500 different executions have run on its platform.

"The Voice," the archetype of a social media-aware series, has been a Mass Relevance believer since its first days in preproduction.

"One of the first things we ever did was say, we feel like this is a turning point in television ... and we should be the place to integrate ... the new, burgeoning social media world into television. It's something we felt really adamant about," said Yaron, co-executive producer on the hit show, which first aired in April 2011.

Yaron and her "work husband" Andrew Adashek, who later went to work for Twitter on creative partnerships after two seasons on "The Voice," made sense of this "Wild, Wild West" in social TV with Mass Relevance.

"To Mass Relevance's credit they have made the path for everyone," she said. "I feel like we came up together. I almost feel like Mass Relevance is a part of the show sometimes."

With Mass Relevance, a tweet travels from Twitter to your screen, after flowing through various filters, in seconds. Mass Relevance
Those stationed in the show's truck for graphics and screen content feel Mass Relevance's presence more than others. Here, after a pre-show social rundown with Yaron, a producer selects the best tweets from the bunch filtered by the rules set up in the system. A standards person and a legal person are also present in the truck to quickly sign off on the tweets before they hit your TV. Yet, the whole process happens within seconds so that what's shown on your screen is directly related to what's happening on the show.

As Twitter prepares to go public, it will need the help of Mass Relevance and hit shows such as "The Voice" to stay current and atop the minds of people whose 140-character activities will play a role in how investors value the company. There's just one problem: Facebook.

Facebook wants desperately to be your Internet water cooler so it can squeeze its way into television programming. The social network released hashtags and trending topics for that very purpose, but it's biggest move was a just-announced partnership with Mass Relevance. Just like Twitter, Facebook is now handing over every public post in a real-time feed to the company so that it can win over television producers who want access to the thoughts and opinions of 1.15 billion people.

Though Twitter has long been synonymous with television, Facebook's audience, more than five times greater than Twitter's, is just too big to ignore.

"We're really trying to make a show that works for everybody," Yaron said. "We do want to speak to everyone and we want everyone to speak to us."

Yaron, who doesn't have an allegiance to one social network over another, said she's looking forward to incorporating more of Facebook into the fifth season of "The Voice." "Facebook seems to be taking television very seriously and I am very excited to see what's in store."

Twitter remains prime time's preferred bedfellow, but clearly the secret's out about its most bewitching asset.