To further complicate things, Twitter’s most influential users do not tweet with the expectation that they’ll be heard only with the people who follow them directly. Rather, they treat the platform like it’s a one-way TV interview, using Twitter to break news, to win arguments, to build their brands, to hone their public personas. That’s because they understand that some of their tweets are likely to resonate far beyond Twitter.com and the Twitter app. The photo that Barack Obama tweeted when he won re-election was viewed by tens of millions of Americans who have never used Twitter. Ditto Ellen’s Oscars selfie.
Twitter’s active users then, are only the most easily measured portion of its audience. And the number of timelines people view on the site or app does not capture the service’s vast reach. Even if you’ve never signed up for Twitter, you’ve almost certainly been part of the audience for tweets, whether they’re displayed on television, quoted on the radio, or embedded in an article like this one. Whether you choose to or not, you’re likely to see more in the months and years to come. Yet you won’t show up in any of the metrics Wall Street is relying on to assess its growth.
Yes, active users and timeline views are somewhat relevant to Twitter. They matter because, for the time being at least, direct timeline views by logged-in users are the form of engagement that Twitter can most readily turn into money. Advertisers buy promoted tweets in users’ timelines based on those users’ interests and what they’re likely to be doing at any given moment (e.g., watching Mad Men or the Super Bowl). That’s very similar to Facebook’s business model. And if you visit Twitter.com without an account, you won’t see much. That reinforces the sense that Twitter is useless to those who have no interest in tweeting, and it prevents Twitter from showing ads to nonusers.
Both of these things are likely to change, however. Through MoPub, a mobile advertising platform that Twitter acquired last year, the company can already make money on ads that appear outside of Twitter, on third-party mobile apps. (Think of how Google reaches people with AdSense ads across the Web even when they’re not actively using Google.) Twitter has 255 million active users, but it brags that it can already reach 1 billion iOS and Android users via MoPub.
In the future, Twitter is also likely to find new ways to capitalize on its vast indirect audience. For example, those tweets you see embedded in articles online could come with their own advertisements, analogous to the pre-roll ads that play before embedded YouTube videos. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo hinted as much in an interview on CNBC on Wednesday.
The YouTube comparison is more apt than it might seem. Like Twitter, YouTube comprises two broad classes of users: content creators and viewers. The difference is that you can still get the full YouTube experience if you visit the site without an account. And so YouTube is able to report more than 1 billion “unique visitors” per month—unique visitors being a metric more appropriate to media platforms than social networks.
Don’t be surprised to see Twitter become more YouTube-like, turning its home page into a real-time news platform accessible to anyone, whether they’re logged in or not. That would expand its potential user base to include, for the first time, the majority of Americans who have no interest in either tweeting or curating their own Twitter timelines. If and when that happens, I doubt we’ll be hearing much about Twitter’s growth problem—let alone its demise.