Multimedia content is one of Twitter’s primary focuses as it develops its service into a platform for brands to reach and interact with audiences, and the next step in that evolution could be images that are shown automatically on its flagship Twitter.com service. That’s according to what appear to be limited test rollouts.

Currently Twitter.com supports two-step in-stream image previews, that’s to say that some photos — including those powered by Twitter’s own photo sharing service — can be displayed in a user’s timeline on Twitter.com after they click anywhere inside the tweet.

s4GjbmQ Twitter is testing automatic in stream image previews on Twitter.com

However, a select number of users have noticed automatic in-stream previews which surface images without the need to click. Initially this affects images in the list of the users’ own tweets, rather than timeline of tweets from those they follow — perhaps because Twitter wants to explore the feature in a subtle manner without alerting people to it. It could, of course, be testing it slowly with a view to subsequently ramping things up.

Here are two examples of users that have seen images previewed in their own timeline of tweets (left), compared with how they appear to the rest of us who do not have automatic previews (right):

comparison 730x582 Twitter is testing automatic in stream image previews on Twitter.com

The difference may seem minimal right now, but this would be a significant move if Twitter introduced it right across its Twitter.com service.

Why would Twitter introduce in-stream media previews?

Twitter has spent the last year or so refining its service so as to support its advertising-based business model. That has composed of two major pushes: making media more prominent within Twitter.com and its other clients, and streamlining the number of third-party clients in order to more tightly control the experience and allow its advertising system to ‘touch’ users of non-Twitter owned services.

While a large number of its users continue to use the service via Twitter.com (it was the most popular client in 2009 — a time before mass smartphone adoption worldwide), many ‘power users’ prefer to interact with the service through third-party clients. In order to appeal to advertisers, Twitter needs to be sure that as many users are visiting the main site as possible, and that its ads are reaching as many of those that don’t regularly frequent Twitter.com as possible.

Promoted Tweets are its key to monetization and it introduced Twitter Cards – which preview snippets of links, such as videos and images — to boost them with a richer multimedia experience. After all, if Twitter is to gain the advertising dollars of brands, it needs to show that there is engagement on its platform, which Cards aims to encourage. In addition, Cards allow brands to be more expressive and maximize the use of multimedia to hep their Promoted Tweets stand out.

Either way, it makes sense that Twitter is testing in-stream image previews — even though it appears limited to users’ own tweets at this point — because it is a feature that many other Twitter clients use (such as Twitter-owned TweetDeck below and TweetBot, as well as China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo). It could be an introduction that increases engagement and boosts future advertising opportunities.

On the other hand, Twitter is known for brevity and pushing images into users’ timeline could adversely affect the amount of information they can extract. That’s what Twitter is likely weighing up — since the current system makes multimedia easy to open but doesn’t clutter streams with images, as services like Facebook do.

tweetdeck weibo 730x391 Twitter is testing automatic in stream image previews on Twitter.com

Image and media previews may well be introduced to Twitter.com — the feature works well on Weibo and other clients – in time but, while Twitter is testing ideas, there is no guarantee and we’ll just have to wait.

Twitter declined to comment when we contacted the company for more details. However, we do know that it is often testing new features and settings, as it explained in this blog post last year.

Headline image via laughingsquid / Flickr