In its first orchestrated crack at reaching users beyond its walls, Twitter is turning to a massive market: India. During the lead up to the Cricket World Cup this Sunday, the company is introducing a feature that allows cellphone owners in the country to sign up to receive tweets related to the popular games. The technology comes from a company joining Twitter's fold.
CEO Dick Costolo announced the initiative on the earnings calls last week. He claimed it would mirror the service's aggressive push around the World Cup. "The difference will be that this time anyone with a feature phone or smartphone will just as easily be able to see and enjoy these experiences," he said, "even people without Twitter accounts."
As with the World Cup, Twitter is creating a new landing page tailored to the cricket tournament that is meant to keep users returning. But for this promotion, the emphasis is both on recruitment and finding new avenues for tweets -- part of the company's pivotal strategy of proving, expanding and measuring its "logged-out" audience that views Twitter content without registering.
Twitter continues to grapple with adding new active users. Last quarter, it added just four million, all outside the U.S.
During the cricket games, which extend throughout March, Twitter is partnering with the hosting league, the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). The campaign relies on the "missed call" platform from ZipDial, a Bangalore company that delivers ads to consumers without discretionary income for smartphones or mobile data. Twitter agreed to buy ZipDial in January, noting the company was brought on to aid user growth.
Cricket fans can dial a number, hang up, then receive a series of curated tweets as text messages. Both the ICC and BCCI (recently impugned in a game-fixing scandal) will send out up to three tweets per day over text, which include photos, videos and Vine posts.
"It's a behavior that's unique to India, and we're connecting it to a uniquely popular sport in India," said Aneesh Madani, head of sports partnership for Twitter in the country.
The company has deployed this tailored delivery with other partners in India. Admirers of Shah Rukh Khan, the Bollywood megastar (11.3 million followers), can sign up to receive his tweets alone; acolytes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi (10.1 million followers) can as well.
At the moment, promoted tweets will not be included in the texting feature. And Twitter is limiting its cricket offering to three tweets a day, an attempt to bait phone owners to convert to users. "They have option to sign up with an account and see all the content," Mr. Madani said.
Digital ad sales in India lag behind those in developed countries. Twitter earns $5.65 in ad dollars per every 1,000 timeline views (an engagement metric Twitter is abandoning) in the U.S. Outside the country, it is $1.16.
India is one of Twitter's biggest potential pools for users, if not its largest. The country has around 173 mobile internet users and that figure will grow 23% by June, according to research firm IMRB International. Twitter may have picked up considerable new users in India last May, when the country held its national elections. During that quarter, Twitter's Chief Financial Officer Anthony Noto said the service gained 1.2 million users from India and South Korea. He did not parse the numbers by country.
One barrier for new users is the relatively high cost of mobile data, an impediment to phone owners in countries like India to using social media frequently. Here, Twitter faces heated competition from Facebook, which claims over 100 million active users in India. Last week, the social-media behemoth announced the expansion of Internet.org, an app that subsidizes data costs for Facebook's app along with others, in six states across India.
Twitter recently hired a sales head in the country and is setting up its inaugural presence there, converting ZipDial into an engineering office.