Twitter License Plates
Source: Twitter.

If you use Twitter (NYSE:TWTR), there's a very good chance you use it to keep up with the news, according to a new survey from the American Press Institute. The survey found 86% of Twitter users say they use Twitter for news. The survey was funded by Twitter itself, so these results may paint it in a positive light.

A previously released survey from Pew found that just 63% of Twitter users use it to follow the news. That same survey found the same percentage of Facebook usersfollowed the news on its social network.

But the new API survey gives us a lot of insight into how people follow news on Twitter, and what else they use Twitter for. Let's look at what it could mean for Twitter's future as it aims to attract the mass market.

Twitter is really good at news
Anyone familiar with Twitter at all knows that it's often responsible for breaking news stories before traditional media gets to them. People go on Twitter to talk about natural disasters, riots, a plane crash, or the death of a notable person. (They also talk about good stuff, too ... probably.) Famous people and influencers often use Twitter to announce things like a new job or a new stock position. News stories on TV and in digital publications often cite Twitter as a source.

Indeed, if you're a journalist or just someone who likes to keep up with the news, Twitter is an irreplaceable tool. That may be why Twitter users were 27% more likely than non-users to say keeping up with the news is easier today than it was five years ago.

Twitter is particularly good at breaking news. About 60% of Twitter users said they'd used Twitter in the past month to follow at least one story as it developed.

Twitter isn't really good at much else
Beyond following the news, some of the other popular activities on Twitter include "To tell others what I am doing and thinking about," "To keep in touch with people I know," and "To follow famous people."

None of these things play to Twitter's differentiating strength. The first two are better accomplished with Facebook, which is more widely used than Twitter. The last item is equally, if not better, accomplished via Instagram. As a result, these actions are around half to three-quarters as popular as following the news on Twitter.

The case for Twitter to focus on expanding its product around news
Users who follow news, particularly breaking news, are significantly more engaged on Twitter compared with the average user. Consider that 92% of those who use Twitter for news click on links to news stories at least sometimes, and 80% of users who followed a breaking news story clicked on at least one article within the past month -- more than double the number of news readers who said they "always or usually" click on a link.

Moreover, 55% of breaking-news followers retweeted a story, and 53% said they clicked or searched for a hashtag. In addition, 40% said they tweeted a reaction, and 30% ended up following someone new from following the story as it develops. These are significantly higher than the averages for Twitter users.

News readers are providing Twitter with some pretty strong signals as to what they're interested in, which is what the company needs to improve its ad targeting. Keeping users engaged longer also presents more opportunities to present advertisements.

A couple of areas for improvement
First, discovering breaking news is done primarily through browsing the timeline. In all, 62% of users discovered breaking news from browsing accounts they follow. Just 8% came from trending topics, and 5% came from search. Twitter needs to improve people's ability to discover news at it breaks.

Second, Twitter needs to control the news experience to keep users engaged with Twitter. Just 22% of users who followed a breaking news story stayed solely focused on Twitter, while 51% searched for more information through a search engine and 40% checked TV or a publication's website. Twitter could use its upcoming Project Lightning feature to focus more on breaking news than simply on pre-planned events. Curating content from the start of the events could give Twitter users the exact information they're looking for on other outlets.

Doing both of those things would give Twitter a highly engaged and focused user group that it could more accurately target advertisements to. It wouldn't be as massive as Facebook, but it would be a highly valuable social network.

Alas, interim CEO Jack Dorsey and CFO Anthony Noto seem set on appealing to the mass market, and they're about to spend a significant amount on a marketing campaign aimed at reaching it.

Adam Levy has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns and recommends FB and TWTR. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.