During the 2012 US presidential elections, the official Twitter blog referred to the polls as a “Twitter election”. The same phrase was used to describe the 2014 polls in India. Do you think that is overstating the case for Twitter in India?
We’re enthralled by the response of users in India. Twitter can add value for everyone with a mobile device. Some of the initial surge in conversation occurred around 26/11. That was in 2008. For six years, Twitter has been growing and has been embraced by users. We’ve seen conversation on public issues and politics grow. In 2012, with the conversation around women’s rights, there was a massive surge in conversation. There was a tweet from a woman who believed she was being detained by the police. There was a tweet from Arvind Kejriwal “Meet at India Gate at 6 pm for the protest.” During the 2013 state elections, it served as a central platform for communication. After all of this, it doesn’t come as a surprise how it is being used in these elections. Whether you’re sitting at home or are in a news organization, the centrality of Twitter is unmistakable. By any metric, be it original content, usage by political leaders, influence on political discourse or media agenda, we have been relevant if not central. What is important for us is that users are responding.
What are the top 3 things that happened in these elections according to you that would not have happened without Twitter?
One of our massive contributions has been the “second screen” or “social TV” — whether it’s Arnab reading tweets on TV, or Rajdeep inviting questions with the tag #AskRajdeep, or Rahul Kanwal hosting a Twitter debate. This is also true in sports.
Second, many candidates and parties are using Twitter with Narendra Modi tweeting about news events … Arvind Kejriwal had tweeted about the attack on him (in Varanasi). The INC used Twitter for their manifesto. It has been their first platform of choice.
It is the first company from Silicon Valley that is mobile first. 76% of our users are on mobile. We co-exist with other media. There are people using tweets to point to YouTube videos. That is something we applaud. Third, users have found resonance on Twitter. My dadi (grandmother) lives in Nagpur, and she uses Twitter on SMS to connect to Aaj Tak. It offers an interactive, intimate and up-close experience with a news organization or a candidate. Last winter Olympics saw 40 million tweets. Indian elections have outperformed that event(on Twitter).
Six new national political figures have taken to Twitter since July 2013, including Lalu Prasad Yadav of the RJD and Dipankar Bhattacharya of the CPI(ML). Were they enlisted or was their joining spontaneous?
We have been intentional and equal opportunity in ensuring that media companies and public figures are using Twitter. Our value proposition is clear, strong and self-evident in India. We don’t comment on individual accounts. But it’s not hard to see how five years ago, there was only one politician on Twitter, and now it’s hard to find a significant leader who is not on Twitter. What we have seen is they take it personally. The advice we give them is — be personal, authentic and tweet pictures.
Figures from IAMAI say Twitter has only around 33 million users in India. PeerResearch says the country is ranked 21st by Twitter user base.
It is one of our top 10 markets, and one of our most strategic markets. Our India strategy tracks along three fronts. One is investing and partnering with the media business, public figures and news organizations. We have been working aggressively with media organizations to drive growth, our objectives are not dissimilar.
The second strategy is distribution of Twitter and making it more accessible from a technological standpoint. You can access it through SMS or through your TV remote control as with Airtel DTH, where you can press the green button to see tweets on your TV screen. We’re working with Vodafone and Reliance to build compelling experiences for users. Number three is brands. In the last four quarters, promoted products have been available for marketers in India. Our primary focus has been growth.
You had around seven promoted trends in October last year and at least 18 this March. How have the elections contributed to advertising revenue?
The response from national political parties has been consistent and strong with promoted tweets. Marketers are interested in users with an interest graph, who come to Twitter to discover content, interact and express themselves. We are equal opportunity and our objective has been growth.
How do you plan to sustain the volume of conversations that you achieved with the elections after the results have been declared?
For us, the conversation on Twitter around public issues is not limited to the elections. A country that is interested in politics (will remain) interested whether or not there is an election. Our decision to hire someone to handle news and politics shows that there is ample opportunity to help government organizations re-imagine how they communicate and connect.
How has your role from 2009 at Google during the last elections helped with the 2014 elections?
I was doing something very similar to what Raheel (Raheel Khursheed, head of news, government, and politics at Twitter India) is doing right now. While social (media) was around at the time, my role was around helping political parties understand and use Google tools and the internet. The (election) has been about telling a story around people with power and connecting with the people. With that, things have really come full circle full circle for me.
Has the profile redesign helped Twitter get more users?
Our users are craving for a media-rich experience. The profile change is a response to that. We are delighted with the feedback around the redesign. We have seen a 25% increase in engagement (retweets, favourites, replies) since we introduced (the design feature where) pictures and videos are open by default on users’ timelines.
What about increase in numbers?
All I’ll say is that we are delighted with the feedback around it and we continue to grow rapidly.
What is your strategy with teenaged users in India?
We think our strategy around media and entertainment is compelling for them. They can now connect with a hashtag by dialing a number. We have someone working exclusively on sports partnerships (Aneesh Madani) and making sports a more “Twittery” experience – teenagers do flock to those. We have someone working on entertainment partnerships as well (Pratiksha Rao). NH7 has been a big partner. They had a live Twitter stage (at the Weekender event in Pune). With Indian Idol junior, kids could see tweets from Amitabh Bachchan wishing them luck on the stage. Young people want a mobile experience that is live, authentic, and interactive, and reflects them. With Twitter, it adds up to growth in that area.
Will there be any mergers or acquisitions by Twitter in India anytime soon? There have been rumours about the acquisition of Frrole, a Bangalore-based startup that uses Twitter data for social media analyitics.
There is a range of entrepreneurs that see value Twitter around the world. For example, Zip Dial, on its own, enabled a missed call to follow feature. Frrole is helping Times Now with real time tracking of tweets on the elections. We are always delighted and excited (with entrepreneurs using the Twitter API), that’s all I’ll say.