Interviews: CNN acquires own Twitter account, @cnnbrk, from James Cox
The race to 1 million Twitter followers has turned into a particularly 21st century kind of media circus. Ashton Kutcher, who has been steadily elevating his challenge to CNN, has come within about 17,000 followers of the cable news giant. Both Kutcher and CNN have promised to donate 10,000 mosquito nets to malaria prevention programs if they win, and now Electronic Arts has pledged a mountain of video games and a cameo in its next Sims game to whomever becomes Kutcher's millionth follower.
With all the hype, a strange element of the story has been overshadowed. The news broke that CNN had in fact never owned its league-leading @cnnbrk Twitter account, and that only Wednesday had it acquired ownership of the account from 25-year-old London Web developer James Cox, who'd been running it since January 2007.
In interviews with both Cox and KC Estenson, the head of CNN's online operation, it came out that Cox had owned and maintained the account with the permission and oversight of CNN since mid-2007.
"We’ve been managing the feed through him," said Estenson, noting the huge increase in the number of Twitter followers since the November election. "As Twitter took off and became more prominent, we decided it was time to take our engagement and make it a marriage."
Neither Cox nor CNN would specify the terms of the exchange, noting only that Cox had for some time been contracted by the network as a Web consultant -- he was in Atlanta this week ...
... giving social-media seminars to CNN staff. However, a CNN insider noted that because of the ongoing relationship between Cox and CNN, the deal was not a lump-sum type of transaction in which CNN would pay Cox "what someone could just buy a full account with close to a million users off the street for."
Both Estenson and Cox said that Twitter Inc. had been aware and supportive of the unofficial partnership since the beginning. Indeed, Twitter had put CNN in touch with Cox after the company requested his contact information.
"I think there was a certainly a sense of attachment and understanding and mutual respect that happened between Twitter and me and CNN," said Cox. "There’s was really an open dialog between the three of us."
Recently, however, the three agreed that it was time for Cox to pass the reins.
"We’ve been working with directly Twitter," Estenson added, noting that he'd recently met with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. "As part of that, it’s just a matter of them wanting to make sure that owners of these streams are officially the people who have them."
Cox said that before Twitter, he'd been wanting to find a way to take CNN's breaking news e-mail alerts and send them to his mobile phone, but that trying to set up a system that would send SMS messages was too expensive. Twitter, a free service, solved the cost problem with flying colors and had the additional benefit of allowing his friends to subscribe.
Cox said it took "a couple of hours of hacking" to write a script that would automatically digest CNN's news alert e-mails and post them to the Twitter account. After that, he mostly sat back and watched the account as it snowballed.
"We grew to about 100,000 by ourselves," Cox said. "After that we had help from the Twitter suggested users list and onscreen exposure,” meaning television promotion by CNN. Several anchors on the news channel also have Twitter accounts.
Estenson said Web traffic from the account "is a nice addition to the site but not a meaningful traffic driver when you’re doing a million uniques and a billion page views a month. But this an important part of our audience -- the part of our audience that’s the most active and engaged."
"We hope that we’re helping Twitter as much as they’re helping us," said Estenson, before observing that one major player was missing from the race to 1 million followers. "I’d love to see Britney Spears get into the mix as well."
-- David Sarno [follow]