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Why Twitter Has Its Sights Set on India

Twitter acquired India's ZipDial to help bring in new users.

Asa Mathat

Twitter has planted a flag in India, and the nation’s 1.2-plus billion people are the major reason why.

The social network acquired ZipDial on Monday, an Indian startup that uses “missed call” technology as a messaging service for mobile users. The “missed call” market is big in India, but relatively unfamiliar to those in the United States. Twitter is hoping that market is full of soon-to-be Twitter users.

It works like this: People in emerging markets, including India, don’t often have data plans and many have limited cell phone minutes. To communicate around these parameters, people ping one another by calling a person’s cell phone and then immediately hanging up, triggering a “missed call” message. The recipient sees that he or she has a missed call, and knows that the caller is trying to get in touch.

ZipDial has built technology to support this communication trend. It provides users with toll-free numbers they can call that automatically trigger an SMS response from a brand or company. For example, calling certain numbers can trigger coupons sent via SMS, or even free app installs.

And this is how Twitter plans to get India’s citizens tweeting.

Instead of following someone on Twitter, a user in India could call a toll-free number and automatically subscribe to receive an account’s tweets via SMS. One toll-free number may subscribe them to tweets from their favorite cricket team; another will bring them tweets from India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi.

In India, most people don’t pay to receive a text — the sender pays. In this case, that means Twitter will be paying to share its content with users. Put simply, the ZipDial acquisition is intended for one purpose: User growth.

“If we could be smart about how we communicate with users on a daily basis,” Twitter product VP Christian Oestlien told Re/code, “we could make a persistent relationship with them without using up too much of their data and having them feel like the Twitter experience is too expensive.”

Eventually, Twitter hopes that users will see enough good content that they’ll want to join the app or mobile site. The company will also prompt them to do so from time to time by including links in the text messages.

E-commerce is also blowing up in India, particularly on mobile devices. Eventually, Twitter will want a piece of that action given the recent addition of a “buy” button within the Twitter stream.

Twitter has long been hampered by questions over user growth, which hasn’t ballooned as quickly as Wall Street would like. We’ve suggested in the past that Twitter would need to make an acquisition or two to try to expedite the growth process. In this instance, Twitter is betting that its content is good enough to encourage people to pay for the full Twitter service by using their valuable data plans to visit the app or site on their phone.

Ultimately, India is just the first step. Twitter thinks it can deploy this same strategy in other parts of the world, including Southeast Asia and countries like Pakistan, says Oestlien. It’s about packaging the content in the way people want to see it — and gaining new users in the process.

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