How Twitter plans to monetize people who don't use Twitter

For years, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo described the service as a “global town square.” But he struck a slightly different chord on Wednesday during Twitter’s first analyst day, calling Twitter the “the best way for you to connect with your world.”

The difference highlights how Twitter is now presenting itself to Madison Avenue and Wall Street amid concerns about the company’s slowing growth rate. That is, people don’t need to be in the town square to hear its clamoring, and that should allay advertisers’ concerns that Twitter may not afford a wide enough reach to advertisers.

Costolo for the first time quantified Twitter’s logged out audience, saying that 500 million people consume Twitter in some fashion despite not having Twitter accounts of their own, and Twitter execs talked at length about how the service will change in coming years to better serve — and, perhaps more importantly, monetize — that audience. While Twitter’s influence may indeed spread beyond Twitter itself, the company has thus far been unable to capitalize on it.

Below are insights into what brands and publishers can expect from Twitter going forward.

More event-specific timelines
Twitter used the World Cup as a testing ground for finding ways to better attract and retain users new to the platform, developing game-specific timelines suitable for anyone who wanted to read tweets while watching matches. Twitter director of product management Trevor O’Brien said that feature would become more common, and no longer just a staple of “tentpole” events like the Oscars or World Cup.

Easier signup process is gaining traction
Twitter execs also boasted that the recently revamped signup experience better shows the platform’s daily value to Twitter first-timers. Since rolling it out in August, the percentage of people who visit Twitter for the first time and proceed all the way through the signup process has increased 10 percent, according to Christian Oestlien, Twitter’s vp of product management.

While this feature may be working, it wasn’t reflected in Twitter’s most recent earnings statement in which it was revealed Twitter’s year-to-year user growth rate slid for the third consecutive quarter.

Instant timeline
Part of the new onboarding process was making it easier for users to identify people to follow based upon their interests, and that, too, seems to resonating with users. The number of accounts a new user follows during the signup process has almost tripled (up 190 percent) with the new process and the number of people importing their smartphone contacts doubled (up 100 percent).

Private messaging
Twitter — arguably the most public platform in existence — wants to take advantage of the growing popularity of private, one-to-one messaging. Twitter execs said it will be adding features to its current message function, to make it easier for people to send tweets or unique missives to one another.

Video and location
Twitter is going to become even more visual, with the platform planning to let users shoot and upload video directly to the app, rather than having to link to YouTube or with Vine, the video-sharing app Twitter owns.

Twitter will also be looking to serve users more tweets relevant to their locations, giving it a potential entryway into the local ad market. Twitter tried this once before when it tested the Nearby feature, which has since been abandoned.

Algorithmic feed?
Twitter diehards expressed their digital outrage this September when Twitter CFO Anthony Noto said that Twitter was developing a way to algorithmically organize tweets. O’Brien clarified that would come in the form of Twitter “highlights,” a new feature that will display a popular tweet at the top of a user’s timeline when he or she signs on, even if it wasn’t the most recent tweet.

For the power users
There’s a dilemma at the core of Twitter’s growth problem: The very features Twitter power users love about the platform — retweets, favorites and hashtags, its distinct vocabulary — are the ones that make the service so inscrutable to the newcomer. And while its efforts all seem aimed at non-users, Twitter execs said it was focused on remaining the premier breaking news platform. Twitter’s role in the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier this summer was brought up frequently during the presentation, and O’Brien announced it will add new features like natural disaster alerts to cement its position as “the breaking news and information platform.”

But monetization remains a question
Twitter’s plan for those 500 million so far seems to be show them the power of Twitter and how it can (and should) play a part in their day-to-day lives. Getting these non-users enamored of — and eventually signed on to — Twitter is pertinent given that Twitter can so far only serve ads to users on Twitter.

Twitter has hinted at how it will eventually monetize those users, though, leading people to believe it will one day serve ads against Twitter media wherever it’s seen. One could imagine Twitter making event-specific timelines available to everyone and serve ads within the stream, or to sell ads within the publicly accessible profile pages of famous users. MoPub, the Twitter-owned mobile ad network, lets Twitter display ads in other mobile apps, and uptake of its app development software Fabric will possibly broaden MoPub’s reach.

Until then, Twitter’s 500 million non-users remain passive, unmonetized Twitter consumers. Half a billion may be a large number, but it only signifies potential for now.