Mar 3, 2014 · 6 minutes

Of all the contenders at last night's Oscars, it was Twitter that most badly needed a win.

Last month, Twitter released its first quarterly statement as a public company, and despite posting solid earnings, one metric was particularly troublesome to analysts: The company only added nine million users in the last quarter of 2013, making it the fifth straight quarter of decelerating user growth:

Furthermore, its live event metrics for the first two months of the year were less than stellar. Tweets during the Grammys and Super Bowl had plateaued compared to last year and Golden Globes tweets were actually down from 2013, despite the fact that it was the most-watched Globes telecast in ten years. (There is one caveat to this data: the company has made changes to how it counts tweets during live events, so year-on-year comparisons aren't perfect).

During last night's Oscars, however, Twitter said there were more than 14.7 million tweets containing terms related to the telecast. That's more than twice as many as last year's Oscars, which garnered only 6.8 million tweets. The real headline-grabber though was Ellen DeGeneres' star-studded selfie that became the most retweeted tweet of all time, racking up 2.6 million retweets (and counting) to beat Obama's 2012 victory tweet by a mile.

Getting a bunch of retweets is nice, but it doesn't always pay the bills, at least not for Twitter. Although Samsung partnered with Twitter to send promoted celebrity selfies from the green room, which generated profits for Twitter, a person familiar with the situation told the LA Times that Twitter had no role in the Ellen selfie.

On one hand, that means the biggest Twitter moment of the night wasn't a deliverable in an ad campaign. But it also speaks to Twitter's remaining strength: Celebrity cool and live TV event dominance. This is what Facebook has never had. It went straight from MySpace to Twitter. And as we've written before, it's one of the big assets that Facebook got when it bought Instagram, another service celebs love. Likewise, it was yet another reason Twitter could hardly afford to lose Instagram to Facebook.

We all talk about Instagram being the one that Twitter let slip away, but let's remember, long before that, Twitter was the one that Facebook let slip away. As much as he's described now as a savant of M&A, Mark Zuckerberg's awkward negotiating tactics were even mocked by Twitter founders on the Howard Stern show.

Had Ellen Instagrammed her selfie, it would have been a symbolic victory for Facebook's inroads into TV, pop culture, and celebrity. I mean, the company has only spent some $20 billion trying to hijack the cool, mobile, real time conversation-- not to mention it's own failed internal efforts to ape Twitter, Foursquare, Snapchat or any other service that gets hot.

As is, Twitter still owns celebrity and TV. The most telling moment may have been when Meryl Streep gleefully said the selfie was her first tweet. A lot in Hollywood simply aren't early adopters. Inertia is strong: While, say, the Kardashians may have moved onto Instagram and Twitter, Meryl Streep isn't yet on Twitter. There's still growth here, and this game is Twitter's to screw up.

As long as Twitter has that-- whether paid for or serendipitous-- it's also the gateway partner for brands like Samsung.

For Samsung's part, its deal with ABC to have DeGeneres snap photos using a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 all night paid off in a more concrete way. Sure, behind-the-scenes she tweeted from her iPhone, a somewhat embarrassing turn-of-events for Samsung. But according to data given to Pando by the number-crunchers at Kontera, this ploy helped Samsung become the night's most-mentioned brand in Oscar-related social media posts, with a big spike centered around the selfie. Meanwhile, DeGeneres' backstage iPhone snafu didn't seem to hurt Samsung too much, at least not when measuring the conversation surrounding the event. The sentiment breakdown of the mentions was 23 percent positive, 69 percent neutral, and only 8 percent negative.

Does that mean a well-planned, well-executed social media plan can work wonders for advertisers? First off, regardless of how much or little planning went into it, the Ellen tweet had a spark of spontaneity to it that's difficult to replicate, which was what made it so shareable. Sure, the Samsung device was front and center when she took the photo, but the constant visibility of Samsung during the event was part of a larger ABC deal, so it's no wonder it "won" the Oscars on social media.

The more pressing question is, does getting a bunch of social media mentions make more people buy Samsung phones? That's hard to say. As the 19th century merchant John Wanamaker famously put it, "I know half my advertising is wasted—I just don't know which half."

It's not clear whether advertising on Twitter reach can compete with TV. Television ads at the Oscars reach a captive audience of tens of millions, compared to the 2.6 million retweets of the Ellen selfie. Indeed, those are also seen by many of each retweeter's followers, amplifying the reach. In Samsung's case, however, the name of the brand wasn't even included in the tweet. When a social media ad is more explicitly branded, the reach is far lower. Look at the "Oreo tweet." Although it's heralded as a grand triumph in real-time social marketing, it was only retweeted 15,000 times. And although the Ellen tweet generated a big spike for Samsung, Kontera says that most of the conversation around Samsung was centered around its television ads.

Nevertheless, Samsung's social media-driven takeover of the Oscars presents more sophistication than we usually see in real-time marketing. The days of brands throwing everything at the wall, hoping to create the next "Oreo tweet" may be giving way to a new strategy where advertisers strike formal deals with Twitter through its Amplify program to reach audiences. That'd be good news for Twitter, which profits off these promoted tweets. Celebrity cool aside, if Twitter can't turn itself into a compelling ad platform, that could severely limit its revenue possibilities.

And yet the Internet didn't freak out over Samsung's paid celebrity tweets, they freaked out over Ellen. For Samsung, partnering with Twitter was just one part of a larger advertising strategy that involved television commercials, a partnership with the network airing the event, and a strong brand ambassador in DeGeneres, regardless of whether she's a not-so-secret iPhone fan. (Seriously, does anyone think celebrity spokespeople use the products they promote?)

The Oscars showed why Twitter is still distinct from every other social network. But as a public company, it also needs to prove that promoted tweets can convert users into buyers.