A sleeping giant awakens: Twitter is about to flick the billion switch

Somewhere in Twitter HQ there's a big switch which would let them officially start serving adverts to over a billion users, the only trouble is that flicking it might mean having to admit they were wrong.

It seems you're not anyone in digital these days unless you have a billion users - Facebook have that many every single day, and Google properties including YouTube, Android & search are all in that camp too. You can point to much hyped upstarts like Instagram & Snapchat that haven't got there yet, but they're headed in that direction and panic only sets in if that growth tails off.

Enter stage left Twitter, the social media powerhouse and once absolute media darling, which has been dogged by this accusation ever since it went public two years ago. Throw enough mud and some of it sticks, and just about every piece written about them further builds this story of slow down, loss of focus and general bewilderment. Unfortunately for them the ruthless, data-focussed world of digital marketing is often led far more by what's making headlines than what's driving results, and that puts them in a tricky position.

Yet Twitter has around 300 million monthly active users, which is far more than many other platforms marketers are willing to invest in, and far more than any of them are currently investing enough to reach as it stands. Through their MoPub acquisition they have several hundred million additional users of their 'Audience Platform', plus a further 500 million logged out users who visit the site from links, and over a billion who see tweets embedded on other sites.

That's not a story other sites can tell. It's incredibly unlikely you'd end up on Facebook if you're not a user; Instagram does get reasonably widely embedded but is not as ubiquitous; and Snapchat is essentially still a mobile walled garden. Unlike the next wave of startups Twitter has the billion reach already, it's just nervous about using it.

Twitter's story to advertisers has focussed very heavily on conversations & engagement, and even their wider neuro research has focussed on proving the platform's quality on that front versus other sources. Furthermore they've built an agenda around highly reactive & accurate targeting, and the opportunity to respond in real time. Awkwardly their wider reach products all begin to give up some elements of this, especially much hope of two way engagement and in reality a lot of the targeting - essentially acknowledging that there might be more important factors at work after all.

Worse still for them, industry-leader Facebook did a complete U-turn on this thinking around three years ago and has relentlessly preached the value of reach, frequency and passive observation ever since. Bringing the industry with them has been like a speed boat tugging an oil tanker round a corner but they're getting there - marketers are becoming far more reach focussed and aware of the renewed role of much classical media thinking. In that world it's tricky to justify having an impactful conversation with a small number of people when you can take your message to ten times as many elsewhere, and it’s ultimately penetration not frequency which builds the world’s biggest brands. Twitter, at least externally, didn’t seem to feel a need to push out into this broader light weight reach, because it felt it was sitting on something more valuable, but brands might beg to differ.

A sleeping giant is however about to wake up. If I was a financial advisor (which I'm not, so immediately disregard this comment) I would probably suggest now is a good time to buy $TWTR shares. Their quiet roll out of the Twitter Audience Platform means advertisers can already push their Tweets far beyond the platform as interstitials in thousands of popular mobile apps. Last week they revealed their first (overdue) plans to show adverts on profiles, search results and other screens that those 500 million logged out users visit. The door is opening slowly to advertisers but the flood gates will follow.

And what about the billion who see embedded Tweets? Surely they are out of reach? Not at all, in fact Twitter already quietly serves advertising to these very users. Through their 'Amplify' sponsorship program an advertiser can run pre roll ahead of video content on the platform, and if that content happens to get embedded elsewhere those ads stick with it. At present this tends to be bonus value as part of wider sponsorships, but it's only a matter of time before a price is put on it. Their challenge here is how they do this without annoying the news & entertainment websites who embed their Tweets as it stands, and it may be that some push for a slice of the profits themselves.

There'll be a lot of debate about how valuable & targeted this extended reach is and chief operating officer Adam Bain suggests logged out users will only be worth $2.50 versus $4 a year for a logged in user. An admission of lower CPMs due to weaker targeting you might think? But I suspect it might be more to do with how often a user is likely to visit the site, and thus how many times adverts can be shown at all. For all the promises of advanced digital targeting most mainstream advertisers find that maximising reach is more effective than paying more to contact a specially selected few.

Twitter may have built its business on conversation, engagement and nuanced targeting, but it's about to find out you can make a lot more money from high reach, managed frequency and an acceptance that consumers are still pretty passive after all. The sooner it brings itself to flick that billion switch, the sooner it can start making some of those good headlines again.

Jerry Daykin is global digital director at Carat, you can follow him on Twitter at @jdaykin.

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