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Twitter taps area talent as it grows Boston footprint

Twitter

David L. Ryan / Globe Staff

From left, Crashlytics founders Jeff Seibert and Wayne Chang, and Bluefin founders Michael Fleischman and Deb Roy.

Since buying a pair of Kendall Square start-ups earlier this year, Twitter Inc. has been steadily building its East Coast headquarters in Cambridge, an operation split between two small offices that don’t come close to matching the social media giant’s grand ambitions.

The San Francisco-based company has not said whether it will combine Crashlytics, a mobile software outfit, and Bluefin Labs, a social media research firm that came out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, into one big office anytime soon, but Twitter has committed to growing a significant presence in Boston.

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It’s already looking to add more data scientists and software engineers to the roughly 75 workers at Crashlytics and Bluefin who became Twitter employees over the winter.

Like many other West Coast technology companies, Twitter was drawn to Boston because the city is loaded with the technology expertise it needs to expand.

“Twitter is facing a huge talent shortage as they grow, and being able to tap the Boston talent pipeline is hugely strategic,” said Jeff Bussgang, a general partner at Boston’s Flybridge Capital Partners, which invests in technology start-ups.

The social media platform appears to be preparing for an initial public stock offering, and Crashlytics and Bluefin represent two areas critical to its future success — mobility and television.

Crashlytics makes software that improves the performance of mobile apps. Its customers include Walmart Stores Inc. and Yelp Inc. Bluefin, meanwhile, is all about television. It specializes in analysis of the so-called social TV trend, which involves people tweeting and commenting on social media about favorite shows and sporting events.

“Mobile is key to Twitter’s strategy, and integration with TV advertising is core to what they are trying to do as well,” said Mike Perlman, a vice president at Compete Inc., an Internet research company based in Boston.

“Twitter has built out a huge user base, and they are now having to prove to the marketplace that Twitter isn’t just a platform to interact with people, but that it’s also an effective marketing platform,” Perlman said.

Acknowledging Boston’s standing in the tech world, Twitter spokesman Jim Prosser said “it would have been irresponsible” for the company to have ignored the region.

“These are teams that are working on very discrete, very hard problems,” Prosser said. “From a pure computer science perspective, we think there are so many exciting things to be done in these areas.”

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Inside the Twitter office in Cambridge.

A “Twitter Boston” sign is now posted at the entrance to Crashlytics, and small, blue birds resembling Twitter’s logo hang in nearby Bluefin. Until the acquisition, Bluefin focused on selling research to TV networks and advertisers on what people were saying about their shows and advertisements on Twitter. Now, Twitter has brought that research in-house as it courts the big networks to buy more advertising.

Last week, Twitter said it was launching a new way to target ads. Using Bluefin’s technology, it can detect when any of Twitter’s 200 million active users were likely exposed to TV ad campaigns based on their conversations on the service. It can then use that data to help national advertisers target ads on Twitter to specific users.

“Twitter’s revenue is from advertisers. TV advertisers represent the biggest ad budgets,” said Flybridge’s Bussgang. “The more data and insight Twitter can provide them, the more valuable a platform they have.”

Although the social television phenomenon is just beginning to take off, Twitter has been at the center of it. According to Nielsen, the level of tweeting about television grew 182 percent from 2011 to 2012, and about 32 million Twitter users talked about TV on the site last year.

“We are social animals,” said Deb Roy, the cofounder of Bluefin Labs and a professor at the MIT Media Lab. For people who want to connect with others about a live television event, or see what others are talking about during a basketball game or awards show, Twitter has become something of a digital water cooler.

“If you want that kind of live interaction with others, it’s the place to do it,” said Roy, who helped launch Bluefin in 2008 and is now Twitter’s chief media scientist.

While Bluefin will phase out its outside business relationships, Crashlytics will remain a stand-alone brand. Following Twitter’s purchase, Crashlytics started offering software to business clients for free.

“We are still on the same track, but we are just going a lot faster,” said Wayne Chang, cofounder of Crashlytics and a stalwart of the local technology community whose former business partners include Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the Harvard University graduates who alleged Mark Zuckerberg stole their idea to create Facebook.

Since Chang started Crashlytics in 2011, it has raised about $6 million in venture capital funding, including from Flybridge, prior to the Twitter deal. Bluefin Labs raised about $20 million from venture investors.

Twitter would not disclose terms for either of the acquisitions.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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