Why you should care

Because the future of media may lie in the billions beyond American borders.

Rishi Jaitly wasn’t even in India when he attended his first protest on the subcontinent. He sat in faraway Detroit, watching a diminutive social worker named Anna Hazare conduct a loud anti-corruption campaign — through the flicker of his computer screen. Jaitly made his way to the protest through Twitter, where he came “to understand the roar of the crowd.”

Three years later, Jaitly finds himself in India for real, working for Twitter as the company’s first market director — meaning he runs the whole shebang — in a country ablaze with money and technology. The narrative he spins about what the social media giant is doing in the country is similar to the legend of Twitter’s role in the Arab Spring: It’s about democracy, he says, and enlarging the voices of the quiet by way of @s and #s. In more utilitarian terms, it’s about getting as many Indians on the social media platform as possible. So far, the country has an estimated 300 million people online, which is more than the U.S., but Jaitly has miles to go before he sleeps, since it’s just under 20 percent of the population.

But how do you get Indians to pay attention? In Jaitly’s case, it’s about convincing some of the country’s biggest figures in three of the country’s biggest passions — politics, film and (of course) cricket — to start tweeting away. As corporate-looking as he might be, the 32-year-old has figured out how to be quite the smooth talker among India’s cultural elite, attracting everyone from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to beloved Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan to iconic cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. It made a difference during the 2014 elections, India’s most social ever, when Twitter was a huge part of countrywide debates — a novelty at the time.

Twitter is taking off only in big Indian cities, so he can’t rely on stars and athletes. He’ll have to turn to small cities, less accessible users.

In person, Jaitly is a warm, relaxed, Indian-American corporate executive, but not particularly forthcoming about his personal life and his trajectory to the top. Then again, maybe you don’t have to ask to know. Jaitly’s part of a wave of Indian-Americans heading back to the booming motherland their parents left. Born to a comfortable existence, one imagines it wasn’t hard to spring into a cosmopolitan corporate class. Plus, when we poked around — finding a New York Times wedding announcement, his Facebook page and tweets (duh) — the pieces make sense: the son of two Greenwich, Connecticut doctors, an erstwhile New Yorker. Today he lives in the expat hood of Mumbai with his wife and daughter. He speaks passionately about “respecting and defending the user’s voice” — a motto he sports in sticker form on the back of his MacBook Air. He chats like a local, rattling off names of popular TV shows, movie stars, cricketing events and media coverage of his company.

Rishi Jaitly

Rishi Jaitly finds himself in India working for Twitter as the company’s first market director.

Much of his short tenure has been an easy ride, with a few bumps along the way. In January, he hired Raheel Khursheed, a former journalist, to head government affairs, news and politics at Twitter India. Khursheed’s apparent liberal anti-Modi stance caused a stir. Plus, there’s a recurring issue of a surfeit of abusive comments toward women.

All of these qualms are nothing compared to the question of how Twitter will make consistent money. (Much of the company’s revenue comes from promoted ad-tweets; of the $665 million they pulled in last year, $220 million came from advertising.) But the company’s share value crashed from the IPO-charged $74/share last October to $28/share in November this year. Jaitly’s team is already using ads. Brands can pay for a 24-hour promotion on Twitter or shell out for a promoted tweet on a cost-per-engagement model. (Twitter won’t confirm specific rates.) That money comes in only if a user replies to or retweets the promoted tweet. That’s a tough model for brands, many of whom don’t yet know how to Venus-flytrap Indian users, says Amit Duggal, general manager of digital media at Madison Communications, a PR and communications agency. But it’s precisely because Twitter’s market share looks likely to drop in the U.S. that India has a big shot. (The U.S. share stands at 20 percent right now, according to a report by Emarketer, a research firm.) And India has one big advantage over those other markets, like, say, China or Brazil — they already speak English, says New York University marketing professor Anindya Ghose. Meaning multinational advertisers — Twitter’s revenue bread and butter — won’t have to change their campaigns as drastically.

Jaitly evaded the question of India’s contribution to the global pie. “I don’t think that’s part of his mandate,” says a former Google employee who’s interacted with Jaitly frequently. When you add it all up, Twitter right now contributes “not even 1 percent” to the company’s global revenue stream, says Duggal. He explains that the product is taking off only in big Indian cities — Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Which means Jaitly can’t stop with the pop stars and athletes online. He’ll have to turn to small cities, less accessible users, far from his expat neighborhood.

Jaitly, for his part, is laser-focused on a goal right in front of him, if not the money on the horizon. “The thing we leave conversations with is: Reach every Indian,” he tells me. “That’s what we’re chasing.”

Meghan Walsh contributed reporting.

This OZY encore was originally published Dec. 19, 2014.

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