Twitter Is Taking A “Log-Out” Approach To Raise Usage, Awareness In Emerging Markets With USSD On Mobiles
Twitter is working hard to build up its profile and usage among people in developing markets, and today another piece of that strategy has come into focus. It has signed a deal with Switzerland-based mobile software company Myriad Group to provide access to Twitter via mobile devices without using a mobile Internet connection, instead relying on a text-only transmission technology called USSD. The service will let users experience Twitter purely as “consumers” who do not need to log in, or even have an account at all to use it.
Myriad’s deal with Twitter is similar to a partnership that was made public last week, when Reuters reported that a company called U2opia Mobile was linking up with the social network on a USSD service. While that article hinted at how the service might work (U2opia has not made a direct statement about it), Myriad has provided us with screenshots and confirmed further details.
Twitter access via USSD is not new: Myriad had been offering it for years already in markets like Argentina to let users post messages and read those sent by their contacts.
This, however, is an interesting progression. Twitter is now, for the first time, officially certifying USSD partners, and it is moving more proactively with a different concept of its service: USSD users will, initially at least, be given a “log-out” experience of the service, without the need to log in or even sign up, and it will be read-only, without the ability to post your own status updates.
USSD, by way of background, is short for Unstructured Supplementary Service Data, and it is technology that is built into even the most basic GSM phones.
USSD operates on a channel separate from SMS, meaning a user doesn’t even need a messaging plan to access Twitter. Other social networks like Facebook have also been deployed over the USSD channel as a way of reaching out to users in emerging markets, where PC penetration is low and mobile handsets are the primary communication device.
Myriad is also behind many of the Facebook deployments we’ve seen on USSD, such as this one with Orange covering Africa. To date, Myriad has had some 17 million unique users of its services across Africa, Latin America (where it’s the exclusive partner of Telefonica), Asia (where it works with Vodafone in India and with others across different markets) — some 20 countries in all.
The Facebook service has seen some strong takeup, with one deployment in Egypt picked up 50,000 new users a week when it first launched. (It was helped with a clever marketing tactic — a user had to enter *125# to activate the service, a specific reference to the start date of their Spring revolution.)
Twitter is a natural partner for a USSD service. Like text messaging, USSD texts have a 160 character limit. “For Twitter it is even better than Facebook because it’s a text driven network,” says Olivier Bartholot, Myriad’s San Francisco-based VP of corporate development and GM of device solutions. “It’s 140 characters so it fits perfectly in what you can provide in terms of the user experience.”
For social networks you can see the obvious interest in the technology: it’s a way of giving access to their services for those who either don’t have smartphones, or who do but are loathe to spend money on 3G, or simply do not have connectivity where they are. Twitter already more users outside the U.S. than it does in its home market — 179 million versus 53 million — but revenues are far smaller. Twitter made $ 2.58 per user in the U.S., versus just $ 0.36 per user abroad. For an ad-based business model, it needs to scale out its international businesses as part of the way to make up the shortfall in the near term.
For carriers, USSD-based social networking services are attractive because they can sell the option to their users as a value-added service.
While Facebook’s service includes two-way communication — users can search for friends, invite friends, accept or deny friend requests, post status updates and comment/like/unlike friends’ status updates — Bartholot tells us that Twitter decided to take a different approach.
“This is a ‘logged out experience’ in the words of Twitter,” he says. “You view but you don’t log in as an end user.” Instead, the service is conceived as “lean-back”, more like a broadcasting medium. “What happens is that we get a suggested list of high-profile users in each country. From that we create a list of categories. We get tweets from these users, and when a user chooses to follow a TV presenter or movie star, or a topic like sports, that user will receive tweets from those selected people or categories.”
The proposition will be very localized to different markets. A particular operator in Africa, for example, may want to create a category about weather to update farmers, fishermen and others who work outdoors. An operator in India may want to create one tracking Bollywood celebs. The mixture, it seems, will be very much of practical/useful and pure entertainment, much like the wider Twitter experience.
He says that the new version, which is planned for launch in Q1 next year, was prompted by Twitter’s new API that was introduced earlier this year. One consequence of it was that it made the old, two-way service no longer usable. “We started the conversation with Twitter in March and it took us six months to work out,” he said. “We now have the certification from Twitter to now deploy this service. What it means is that we now have the brand license and we can call the experience a Twitter experience.”
One important detail that Twitter’s USSD service highlights is that it plays into the general concept of how social networking services go ’round: over 90% of users are simply “lurkers” who read what others post, while most of the rest do both (and yes there are some starlets and bot-like news accounts who only post and do very little reading).
“It’s a way to give a first taste to users of what Twitter is about, especially outside the U.S.,” he says. “In the U.S., Twitter is famous. In other places, not so much.” The idea is to familiarize and grow with the user. As she or he upgrades to more and more sophisticated phones and networks, so will Twitter functionality.
There are some compelling stats to back up the USSD approach taken by Twitter and Facebook. In Brazil, for example, there are 265 million mobile users, but 210 million of those are not using data on a regular basis. “They have smartphones but they just don’t have the means to pay for a subscription or they live in places where the coverage is poor,” Bartholot notes. Even among smartphones, there aren’t very many: there are 220 million feature phones compared to 45 million smartphones. Pointedly, those statistics came from Twitter itself, he tells me.
Right now Myriad has deployments with some 45 carriers for USSD services and is aiming for 40 more. Already its addressable market has a reach of nearly 1 billion users, all told. “That’s what convinced Twitter to go with us for this,” he says.
But on the other hand, there are a number of questions that are still unanswered:
For example, what about a service for those who had already been using Twitter using USSD and were able to post messages but now cannot? Or new users who feel like they are getting short-changed by only getting “feeds” but no input capabilities of their own? Bartholot says that there may be more two-way communications added in over time, as Twitter continues to monitor how take up of this initial service proceeds.
Another area is advertising. Bartholot says that the company is still weighing up how to serve ads through this service, and whether it will count it towards its “per 1,000 views” metric (or if something like that can even be tracked when a user is not logged in). In any case even if there are ads, they will lack a crucial engagement/conversion element: right now, if any link comes through on the service — say through a news service — it will be “dead” as such.
And that’s still not addressing the idea of how and if this will help Twitter build up active users in these markets, how Twitter will count them if they’re by default “inactive” on the self-publishing front, and whether it will ever manage to convert this still-large base of people who have remained on the less-accessible side of the digital divide.
TechCrunch » Social
December is upon us! Whether you are gearing up for a day of battling the crowds at your local mall or quietly enjoying your morning brew, what better way to kick off your weekend then with our featured articles! This week we looked forward to what the future of digital marketing and social business will look like in 2014 and discussed avoiding the one stop suite trap.
As befitting the mass-market appeal of the morning TV program, Costolo admitted that Twitter can be confusing to some folks who are unfamiliar with the service.
“For many people, when they come to Twitter the language is opaque,” said Costolo. “We need to push the scaffolding to the background, and bring the content forward. The media, the photos, the videos.”
Costolo responded by saying that Twitter will focus on bringing content forward.
As Twitter tries to build on its current user base of 230 million monthly active users, there have been concerns that the social network isn’t as accessible to the mainstream as other social services. Twitter has yet to reach the same mainstream appeal of Facebook, which passed a billion users last year.
Of course, this isn’t the only thing Twitter is doing to make the social network more accessible to the mainstream.
Recently, Twitter launched a new feature that switches up the timeline to include responses to previous tweets. This prevents users from seeing a random, contextless response in their stream and instead puts the conversation right in the stream.
Costolo also gave some vague tips on being the best possible tweeter. Ultimately, he said, it’s all about the kind of person you are and expressing your personality within that infamous 140-character limit.
However, he was a bit more specific on how not to tweet.
“You have to speak with an authentic tone of voice,” said Costolo. “With the ubiquity of communication these days, people can sense inauthenticity. Authenticity is the key.”
To close the Twitter-sized interview (it was only about five minutes long), Costolo said that the people he most wants on Twitter are a “collection of female comedians” including Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Melissa McCarthy.
TechCrunch » Social
Twitter has been putting a lot of effort into its advertising business, which today is the newly public company’s primary strategy for generating revenue. But it turns out that one of its earliest, lean-back efforts has not proven to be its most fruitful: Promoted Trends generated less than 10 percent of the company’s revenue in the three months ended June 30, 2013.
The detail comes by way of correspondence between Twitter and the SEC, made in the weeks leading up to its first public S-1 report on October 3 ahead of its November IPO. The social networking startup had initially made a private filing with the SEC, courtesy of the JOBS Act, which lets companies with revenues of less than $ 1 billion file without immediately exposing details of its finances. (Twitter says in its S-1 that revenues for the first nine months in 2013 were $ 422.2 million.)
Specifically, the SEC requested Twitter to modify its revenue graphs to include “number of ad engagements per 1,000 timeline views” and “revenue per ad engagement” notations, and to additionally specify any other revenue sources that do not require user engagement.
In its response, Twitter notes the following in correspondence from September 6:
The Company respectfully advises the Staff that, in the three months ended June 30, 2013, less than 10% of its revenue was generated from its Promoted Trends product, which is the only Promoted Product for which revenue is recognized on a fixed-fee basis and does not require any user engagement. The Company does not believe that Promoted Trends will have a material impact on the metrics disclosed in the Registration Statement in the future.
Promoted Trends, first revealed in 2010, were a follow-on from the Promoted Tweets that appeared in users’ Timelines. Promoted Trends were one of the company’s first attempts at using an area outside of the Timeline to drive revenues. In February, the price for Promoted Trends was around the $ 200,000 mark, AllThingsD reported at the time.
In September of this year, Twitter gave Promoted Trends a little promotion of their own, with fuzzy metrics touting how they “produced 22% more conversations about an advertiser,” gave a 30% lift in brand mentions, and a 32% lift in retweets of brand mentions in the first two weeks of exposure.
But, it seems that even with all that, off-piste has remained a marginal product, the runt of the litter to Promoted Tweets and Promoted Accounts. That may also partly explain why Twitter has instead opted to focus on ways of delivering promotions within users’ Timeline streams instead, and continues ramping up with new products, such as the retargeting product announced this week.
The letters between Twitter and the SEC, now listed in Twitter’s public filings, for the most part contain questions about certain details in Twitter’s S-1, with Twitter’s subsequent edits. (“The Company respectfully advises the Staff that it has revised the disclosure on page XX to address the Staff’s comment” appears a lot.) But there are also a few other interesting details in the notes that never seem to have made their way into the S-1 filing.
Another one that caught my eye was about Sina Weibo. In an August letter, the SEC asks Twitter to explain better why Sina Weibo is considered a competitor. This longer explanation, which details Twitter’s concern with Sina Weibo’s international ambitions, also hasn’t quite made it into the S-1 filing we see today (bolding mine):
“The Company respectfully advises the Staff that there are a number of reasons it considers Sina Weibo a competitor even though the Company is not permitted to operate in China,” Twitter writes. “Sina Weibo attempts to offer products and services that are somewhat similar to those offered by the Company, and Sina Weibo has started to offer its products and services outside of China and may continue such expansion outside of China. As such, outside of China, the Company has started to compete directly with Sina Weibo, and expects this competition to continue to grow in the future.
“In addition, Sina Weibo has grown rapidly in China, and has a significant user base and a substantial amount of content on its platform. The Company operates a global platform, and if content is available on Sina Weibo and it cannot be accessed on the Company’s platform, it may reduce the Company’s ability to attract users to its platform.
“Further, the Company may eventually be permitted to operate in China. If the Company were ultimately able to operate in China, it would face significant challenges in gaining users in China because Sina Weibo would already be an established and entrenched competitor.
“As such, the Company believes it is appropriate to list Sina Weibo as a competitor in the Registration Statement.”
What’s also interesting here is that neither the SEC nor Twitter mention Line and Kakao, two other social networking products popular in Asia that do find their way into the S-1. Whether those were later additions, or whether the SEC simply didn’t choose to pinpoint them in its question, is not clear. Although the S-1 only notes the challenges to entering a market like China, Twitter takes a slightly more frank and less guarded tone when communicating directly with the SEC.
(h/t to Zach Seward for first noticing the filings)
TechCrunch » Social
If you’re anything like me, you want your mobile device to fetch exactly what you ask for without requiring much effort on your part at all. And though Siri and Google Voice Actions do pretty well when you give simple commands or ask simple questions like “What temperature is it?” or “ Why is Tom Daley trending on Twitter?” they are less likely to be able to come up with a list of your beloved’s favorite restaurants from the conversations you’ve had via email.
As contradictory as it sounds, some intranets, social platforms, knowledge exchanges and internal communities run the risk of being too successful. They’re in danger of reaching a stage in their development where their size, success and growth can cause complacency.
I've been fascinated with mobile startups like Uber and Snapchat, among others - but not for the standard reasons. Yes, they're both great products and ideas, but the one aspect I found most interesting with Uber and Snapchat is its users never directly interact with the web. Even Instagram, Twitter, and other fast-growing mobile-focused products can be touched through the web browser. Over the weekend, I tweeted out a thought along these lines which turned out to be slightly inaccurate, and it somehow initiated an incredibly rich discussion and debate about what the proliferation of mobile devices and native applications may hold for the future of the web.
Here's what I tweeted on Friday: "To me, the most amazing thing about Snapchat, Uber, and a few other apps is they all don't need the web." If you click on the link to the tweet and open the thread, what you'll see are many replies and different conversations kicked-off from the original tweet. It's quite awesome and worth scrolling through.
Now, a few days later, some reflections and observations:
First, I was not precise with my use of words in that tweet. Snapchat, Uber, and other apps do in fact "need" the Internet. What I had intended to tweet was that Uber and Snapchat users don't need to interact with a website in any way whatsoever. With Uber, just download an app, register, upload a credit card, and you're on your way. With Snapchat, pictures are not published to other networks or as static website pages (such as Instagram).
Second, based on the thread of replies and conversations from Twitter above, it's worth pointing out again the difference between the Internet and the web - the Internet is a network infrastructure that connects many computers to each other, where information travels over the network through a variety of protocols, while the "web" is a way of accessing and sharing information over the network using the HTTP protocol. This was a good reminder for me to be more careful with these terms, as it's too easy to use both words interchangeably from a consumer point-of-view given how popular they are in our vernacular.
Third, the subject of the tweet turned out be a contentious issue in some unrelated ways. Many participants seemed to welcome a world where they'd never have to interact with a web page again - to never have to type in the letters "HTTP" again. Of course, mobile apps where users don't touch a website themselves still often rely on servers and APIs. Others, as expected, rushed to defend the open nature of the Internet (including the prospect of HTML5), a world where anyone can build on top of the network and not have the life squeezed out of them by gatekeepers such as Apple or Google.
Fourth, speaking of the mobile gatekeepers - how this all shakes out on iOS versus Android presents complex scenarios. For now, Apple has little incentive to move developers away from native apps, and consumers continue to prefer native apps. And, if the "cards" concept takes off from Passbook, that will create another mobile interaction unit which harnesses the Internet yet where a consumer never directly touches a website. The story may be different on Android - for one, Google may have an incentive to keep users interacting with the web on mobile, as their business model and data sets are tied to browser activity and the search paradigm, and two, Android can be and is being altered (or "forked") by other device-makers, where HTML5 could present information in native-like ways or where apps are indexed and deep-linked to one another and users can navigate through a mobile web without friction. (All of this can change, as well, if another device or OEM hits the market and captures consumers' heartstrings.)
So…one tweet turned into an incredible, two-day conversation and learning experience about the Internet, the web, and mobile apps. And while the distant future always remains an unknown, for now and the foreseeable future, I'd have to stand by the spirit of my original tweet - that is, when one steps back to think about the potential for a company like Uber or the sheer growth and scale of a communication tool like Snapchat, it remains a fact that those users are not directly touching a website. Yes, I know, they're using mobile software that communicates with the Internet, but the larger point is that the web - as an interface - may not be used by the next billion people who are set to come online.
Put another way, as mobile devices proliferate exponentially, many new users' first online experience will likely not involve any direct interaction with a website. Yes, I know some apps will have wrappers and other users will search for information and end up in a mobile browser, but the growth of and appetite for services like Uber and products like Snapchat point to clear shift - a shift developers, UX designers, large corporations, PC manufacturers, venture capitalists, and even Wall Street recognizes: mobile is the key touchpoint in the network. In a fierce competition for consumer attention, native experiences - not reincarnations of a website on a mobile device -- is what most consumers prefer. For the majority of today's consumers and for future generations , the world of websites will likely seem a distant planet, something they may learn about in school but one that may never matter in their day-to-day lives.
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons / Firefox Flicks
TechCrunch » Social
US retailers had a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend as consumers turned their attention from family dinners to good deals, driving mobile sales to record highs. According to just released statistics from Adobe, "consumers took full advantage of their mobile devices to shop on Thanksgiving Day and ‘omnishop’ while in stores on Black Friday," triggering back-to-back billion dollar shopping days.
Data silos days are numbered. Businesses that organize around products or business functions and not data will disappear.
Last week, Om Malik at GigaOm reported that Instagram was working on a messaging feature to complement its already very-popular social photo app, now with some 150 million monthly active users. Now we've caught wind of something that could point to a possible feature on this would-be messaging product: @instagram.com email addresses.
A source who works in marketing for an e-commerce company has emailed us a list of such @instagram.com email addresses. They appeared, she says, as part of a request she made of one of the many companies out there that compiles data from social networking sites.
She says that part of the results consisted of Twitter handles and Facebook email addresses, and it seems as if the @instagram.com addresses appeared as part of that list.
“We requested verified email addresses for the followers of a certain fan club on Twitter and received back these results,” she wrote in an email. “We use [the data provider] as a tool for gathering information, and suddenly A LOT of the email fields were being filled in with Instagram email addresses.”
(I'm intentionally keeping out the names of the users, the marketing exec, her e-commerce company, and that of the data provider.)
The data provider, which uses a number of different APIs to populate its database, says that it had never seen these Instagram email addresses before. A spokesperson for Instagram declined to comment for this story.
So what might be going on here?
It could be a pure database fluke. I've been sending messages to the list of email addresses on the list provided by our source, and I've also tried out my own would-be Instagram email based on my own user ID. They have all come back to me with “too many hops” error messages. Too many hops can indicate an endless forwarding loop, or too many servers involved in relaying a message, but not necessarily that the address does not exist.
On the other hand, Instagram email addresses could support Om's claim that a messaging service is on the horizon. (His report noted that messaging features, which could be person-to-person or may include group messaging, will be in the next version of the app, expected before the end of the year.)
For starters, look to Instagram's owner, Facebook. There is something instructive here in how Facebook has built its own messaging services that Instagram may have gleaned.
The world's largest social network saw as far back as 2010 the usefulness of having a native email address integrated with a messaging service. It means making that messaging service more useful, but it also means more ways of keeping people on your own platform. So, when Facebook unveiled its revamped messaging system in 2010, it included the option for users to create @facebook.com email addresses.
Sending messages to that @facebook.com email address then automatically sync up with Facebook's messaging platform, which also aggregate messages sent to you by SMS (if you have a phone number associated with your account); Facebook's standalone Messenger app; or Facebook itself.
“This is not an email killer. This is a messaging experience that includes email as one part of it,” Zuckerberg said at the time. “This is the way that the future should work.”
Instagram, in a way, has already laid some groundwork for using email on its platform. You share photos by default to your Instagram stream, but you can additionally send them to specific people via email.
Other developers, meanwhile, have already shown the way forward for what an Instagram messaging service might do. Instachat, InstaMessage and InstaDM are among those that are standalone apps that let you send direct messages to your Instagram contacts.
Giving users on the Instagram network native email addresses could make the process of sending directly to individuals more seamless and integrated to the bigger platform. It could also be a way for those recipients of your emailed images a way to respond back to you.
Facebook, it should also be pointed out, has actually already started to create a link between Instagram and direct messaging: an update to Facebook's Messenger app in August let users access their Instagram libraries to send messages to friends. A first step for Instagram messenger, as it were, and a way of offering more picture-messaging services to a public that has demonstrated and appetite for the feature, courtesy of new hits like Snapchat and a host of apps with a image-first focus.
We have seen much written about the big opportunity in messaging services (one recent, strong example here).
Instagram has proven to be the king of photo apps when it comes to social, open consumption, so it seems natural that it, too, would eventually sprout its own private communications channel, to tap into that opportunity as well.
But while Instagram sprouted up at a time when there was little in the way of its growth, times are different today. Services like WhatsApp - at an average of 15 billion messages per day as of November - are now pushing close to SMS's 20 billion/day messaging dominance.
Focusing on sending photos and video that disappear soon after they are sent, Snapchat is not quite that big - the last number Snapchat revealed, earlier this month, was 400 million messages received (not sent) each day. But it is tapping into a key, young segment of consumers, who (at least for the moment) like to use it, a lot.
Between that rock and hard place of apps attracting people to totally new features (ephemeral messages), and those that have become heavyweights in more text-based mobile messaging (SMS, WhatsApp, Instagram's owner Facebook, and many more), whether Instagram will be able to wedge its own 150-million MAU presence into the scene - with email addresses or without - remains to be seen.
(My informal straw poll points to some early resistance to the concept, but as Twitter co-founder Biz Stone once famously said, it could end up being “The messaging system we didn't know we needed until we had it.”)
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