(Bloomberg ) As his Twitter Inc. (TWTR) colleagues were celebrating the company's initial public offering this month, J.J. Hirschle was gearing up for a bigger milestone: the holidays.
Hirschle, who joined from Google Inc. (GOOG) in October, is Twitter's first executive responsible for targeting retailers to advertise on the microblogging service -- which is especially important during the most lucrative shopping season of the year. So far, the 40-year-old has held meetings with Best Buy Co. (BBY), Target Corp. (TGT) and other potential clients, pitching Twitter as a platform for product marketing.
Hirschle's mission is urgent. Twitter lags behind Facebook Inc. (FB) in dollars flowing from retailers, who are the biggest digital-advertising spenders and are critical for the San Francisco-based company to win over following its blockbuster IPO. Retailer outlays on digital ads, which made up 22 percent of total spending in 2012, are projected to swell to $13.5 billion by 2017 from $9.4 billion this year, according to researcher EMarketer Inc.
"Holiday is one of the most important periods and for me, sitting in the retail world, it is the most critical period," Hirschle said.
Twitter is banking on retailers to help fuel its ad sales after investors paid a premium for the unprofitable company at the time of IPO based on its growth potential. Since then, Twitter's stock has continued to trade well above its $26-a-share IPO price. The shares rose 2.9 percent to $40.18 at the close in New York. A Bloomberg Global Poll this month found 68 percent of investors surveyed anticipate the stock will be below its first-day close of $44.90 in six months.
Hirschle faces significant challenges in his new role. More than 80 percent of retailers expect social-media promotions to have little or no impact on holiday revenue this year, according to a Baynote Inc. survey in August. An International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) study last year found that Twitter and Facebook combined drove less than half a percent of sales on Black Friday and on Cyber Monday.
Even those retailers who have jumped aboard social-media ads prefer some of Twitter's rivals. According to an August poll by Shop.org, when retailers were asked what significant social marketing investments they made ahead of the holidays, 34 percent said Facebook, 28 percent said Pinterest Inc., 19 percent said Facebook's Instagram -- and only 15 percent said Twitter.
The experience of online-marketplace company Etsy Inc. encapsulates some of the hurdles confronting Hirschle. While Etsy uses Twitter ads to showcase products sold on its site, the Brooklyn, New York-based company finds that much more traffic comes from Facebook and Pinterest, which have more photos to draw a shopper's eye, said Etsy Chief Executive Officer Chad Dickerson.
"Twitter as a public company is going to have to try to figure it out," Dickerson said. "I could definitely see them grow, but for right now they're definitely smaller than Facebook and Pinterest."
Facebook has had a head start staffing up and organizing to work with retailers. The Menlo Park, California-based social network, which with more than 1 billion members has five times the number of users as Twitter, added four more ad products this year with retailers in mind. Facebook more than a year ago also hired Nicolas Franchet away from EBay Inc. (EBAY) to be its retail marketing head, joining Steve Biddle, who heads retail ad sales.
"Our product suite is much more advanced than a year ago," Franchet said in an interview. "The landscape has completely changed, to the point where we're advising retailers to build an ecosystem between Facebook and their sites."
Gilt Groupe Inc. Chief Marketing Officer Elizabeth Francis said the online retailer spends more on Facebook than any other social media platform. Even so, it uses Twitter to have customer-service conversations, versus Facebook as a driver of traffic and sales.
"For Twitter it's really about the real-time conversation that's happening on the fly," said Francis, whose company has been advertising on both sites since 2010. On Nov. 29, which is the post-Thanksgiving shopping day known as Black Friday, Gilt plans to run a Twitter ad campaign with the hashtag #carpeholiday that will give fans varying amounts of Gilt store credits.
At The Year Ahead: 2014 conference hosted by Bloomberg LP last week in Chicago, Martin Sorrell, CEO of global advertising firm WPP Plc, said he sees Twitter as "primarily a public relations medium." By contrast, Facebook is "a wonderful long term branding medium," he said. "It will soon be the largest country on the planet if you think of it that way."
Twitter has taken steps to tell advertisers that its ads -- which include promoted posts that appear in people's message streams -- can convert from eyeballs into actual purchases. In an early October blog post, Twitter cited data from Crimson Hexagon that said holiday shopping conversations on its service increased by 30 percent in 2012 over 2011 and peaked around crucial shopping dates like Black Friday. The number of retailers using ad products on Twitter has nearly doubled since last September, the post said.
Twitter has ramped up retailer outreach in other ways. In August, the company hired Nathan Hubbard, the former president of Ticketmaster Entertainment Inc., to help make it easier for users to shop via its 140-character messages known as Tweets. In September, Twitter also agreed to acquire MoPub Inc., a mobile-advertising exchange, to sell ads around the Web.
Those efforts remain in the early stages. Hubbard hasn't yet released a product for e-commerce transactions, and MoPub employees just went through new hire orientation.
Hirschle is also still determining who to hire for his team. Yet he said he has high hopes. He started at Google one month before its 2004 IPO, when their Chicago-based retail team had about 15 people. Google has since developed into an online-advertising giant.
"I really looked at this job as an opportunity to define what our value is to retail, and have the ability to really influence the products we help create to service our retail clients," Hirschle said.
Sporting goods retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. doesn't need convincing. The Kent, Washington-based company is boosting spending on Twitter this holiday season to deliver gift ideas in short video form to people who don't know what to get their loved ones. REI has had a presence on both Facebook and Twitter since 2008, according to Annie Zipfel, REI's divisional vice president of marketing.
"We at REI don't consider social media a brand experiment," Zipfel said in an interview, adding that REI has increased spending on social ads to one third of its digital-marketing budget from one fifth three years ago. "We consider it something that's going to stay."