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The Philippines is driving Twitter’s growth in APAC, says the social media’s MD for SEA

At the start of his roundtable discussion with Philippine media, Arvinder Gujral, Twitter’s Managing Director for Southeast Asia, readily admitted why he had a huge smile on his face.: the social media platform has been enjoying tremendous growth the past couple of years. It was a remarkable turnaround as Mr. Gujral admits that everyone had ‘written them off’ as a player in the Internet industry. In this Q and A, he talked about the reasons that led to the company rebound and Twitter’s plans to further expand its leadership base in the future. He also explained why the Philippines holds a strategic position in those plans.

Q:   What makes your turnaround and your growth dramatic?

AG: I’ve been in Twitter for five years, and I’ve seen it go up and down like any company. But we had a nice quarter and a nice turnaround that media has spoken of  around the world. It was not in good shape in 2016 and that led us into introspection into who we are and what we stand for. Why also asked ourselves why users should continue to use our platform and why companies should invest in it.

Today, we got revenue growth, user growth, and partners coming in. Our audience has grown for eight consecutive quarters. We’ve doubled our numbers the past five quarters. It’s not a fluke that we’ve come back from the dead.

Our daily active users, the main core of our audience, come back every day. We have turned that into profitability in the last quarter. It is a nice benchmark for a company that started in a garage 12 years ago.

The Philippines is not the biggest market in the world globally but what happens in this country is global. What surprises us here  is the scale.

Q:  How does the Philippines fit into that turnaround?

AG: We grew last quarter at 12 percent globally. The Philippines has grown by a much larger percentage. Southeast Asia in APAC is the growth engine of Twitter globally. Several countries are driving the growth: the Philippines is one of them and it  is a fastest-growing market.  The others are India and Thailand.

The Philippines has become a very strategic market for products that we would launch globally, to see what features are working. When we launched Twitter Lite last year, we did a pilot in the Philippines to see if there is any merit in doing that launch. The results gave us confidence and then we had a rollout.

Q: How do Filipinos spend their time on Twitter? What kind of content do they like?

AG: There are three pillars on Twitter that Filipinos are engaging in: entertainment, sports, and civil society involvement.

Entertainment has two buckets: TV series and the awards. 2015 is the biggest one which made it to the Guinness Book of World Records: the Aldub concert which held the maximum number of tweets.  Think about it: we have many more users in the US as well as stars who have more followers like Lady Gaga. But their concerts did not get as  many tweets as those Filipino stars. Filipinos really love to express themselves and they do it on Twitter a lot.

Then you get 60 million Tweets for an award show happening in the Philippines. Those numbers are phenomenal. It defies logic: The Philippines is not the biggest market in the world globally but what happens in this country is global. What surprises us here  is the scale.

The second big category is sports, with basketball obviously in the lead.

The third one is used by civil society groups like when you have typhoons and volcanoes. Government uses Twitter to  tell the people not to go to certain areas or call these numbers when they need help. Twitter is being used as a broadcast mechanism. This is not being done in Metro Manila alone but outside in the provinces. We are being used far across the islands in both rural and urban centers.

As to the demographics of  Filipino users, Millennials make up an overwhelming number. But what is interesting is that there is an equal proportion between men and women. In contrast, there are more men than women when it comes to Twitter users in other emerging countries.

Q:  A look at your platform shows a significant push towards content. Does that mirror the growing trend that many Millennials now prefer videos over text?

AG:  The single biggest driver of revenue is video. Globally, we had 1100 unique live events in Twitter in the last quarter. Go to the NBA Philippines handle and see the clips of the matches that have happened. Before, you would have gone to TV just to check which clips had been broadcasting. Now people are twitting about NBA and their these clips. Millennials are looking at highlights of NBA on Monday.

We are working with premium publishers to have that content and have that conversation on our platform.

If you think about video, you think of YouTube. But in 12 months, we had a 200 percent growth in video consumption. That’s 1.2 billion views a day happening on the Twitter platform. More and more videos are coming into the platform. A lot of video conversations  are happening.

We have the conversation and the content. You will see a very few text-only Tweets. Most of them have an image or a GIF or a video.

But we are very careful about this. We don’t want to be known as a YouTube. We are working with premium publishers to have that content and have that conversation on our platform.

In October of 2017, we announced a premium content partnership for APAC. About 35 partners came on with us, like Bloomberg, ABS-CBN, and other APAC broadcasters.

Q:  The number of individual users is extraordinarily high. But how can marketers use Twitter as a marketing tool?

AG:  Some users see something on TV and tweet about it. At the same time, eyeballs are moving away from TV into smartphones and other devices. Marketers are beginning to ask, “Why don’t we move those eyeballs into content on Twitter which we own and which we can monetize?”

Q:  How did Twitter perform this turnaround? Did it have something to do with the introspection you mentioned earlier?

AG: First, we had to define Twitter. It’s two words: what’s happening. What’s happening is defined by you. What’s happening in Metro Manila, the Philippines, the world. What’s happening in NBA, the elections, the floods.  Let’s define our role to the world and stick to that and many users came back.

Another reason for the growth is innovation. Twitter is no longer confined to its 140-character text format. For example, we had Nike doing a 2-hour video marathon that  trended globally.

In one innovation, we summarize what you had missed during your sleep. The Tweets that got the most engagement and which you would like.  When you wake up, you see these Tweets and can view the content. For example, we know that you care about elections and politics. If you missed an important tweet about those topics, we tweet it back to you and you come back to the platform.

In another, Like is the new re-Tweet.  For example, a few years ago, you follow me on Twitter but this person doesn’t follow you although he follows me. If I tweet, and he retweets, then you see it. Today, when I tweet and he likes my tweet, you will see he likes my tweet. And you might be curious enough to visit my page. This tool is driving engagement because you want to see what other people like.

AI and machine-learning check the billions of Tweets that happen in a day. Machines capture errors and flag them out.

Q:  What about fake news and the other negative content that have made some users and organizations alike disillusioned with social media?  How do you handle any fake Tweets that appear on your platform?

AG: First, we have a tool which can make you report fake news if you see it on Twitter. Second, we are investing in AI and machine-learning to check the billions of Tweets that happen in a day. Machines capture errors and flag them out. But machines cannot capture 100 percent all the time. Where there is a gap, we have to rely on the human factor.

We acknowledge that we have not solved this problem yet totally yet and we are calling for help. If you know that the content you see is not true, come to us, and we will sort it out.

Q:  Aside from maintaining and driving this growth, what other challenges are facing you now?

AG: My biggest challenge is the lag in perception and reality.  How do we bring back the users who had left? Many of them still hold the idea of the 2016 text-only Twitter which is supposedly dying. They do not know of the innovations. But I have seen eight quarters of growth and product innovation. They have not seen it because they are not available on the platform. My job is to show to them the current reality and make them see that it is a different platform. That’s where we have to make the effort to show them the good content and good video.

We were written off by the media before, saying that Twitter is dead or getting acquired. Now they are talking that Twitter is back. We are seeing its resurgence.