Social media company Twitter Inc. (TWTR) is expected to report a less-severe first-quarter loss compared to last year as it squeezes more revenue from a relatively stagnant user base.
The San Francisco-based company, which reports first-quarter 2016 earnings Tuesday after the markets close, has a lot to address after its last report in February sent shares immediately plunging by 11 percent. While Twitter beat revenue expectations, just slightly, its active user numbers dropped. Following years of stagnating user growth that already disappointed investors, Twitter actually stopped at 320 million — a user count that paled in comparison to Facebook’s 1.59 billion.
That number included SMS fast followers, or users who exclusively use Twitter through text messages. Twitter will no longer report that statistic for the monthly active user number, and so the comparable monthly active user number is pegged at only 305 million.
CEO Jack Dorsey said user numbers had already gone up since the end of 2015, but investors do not predict much movement there. Deutsche Bank estimated an additional 2 million would be added in the first quarter of this year.
The company will have much more to prove than meeting those user expectations. “They need to address introductory usability of the product. Once you land in Twitter, you’re like, ‘Is this all there is?’” said Kim Forrest, vice president and senior equity analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group. “As investors you have to evaluate: Is this the team that can do it, while not junking up what people like about it?”
For the first quarter of 2016, Twitter is expected to report a loss of $120 million, or 17 cents per share. That’s down from a loss of $162 million, or 25 cents per share, in the year-earlier period, according to analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. Revenue is expected to reach $607.8 million, up 39 percent from $436 million in first quarter of 2015.
Twitter isn’t a money printing machine like Facebook, which last quarter reported $1.5 billion in profit, but Dorsey has been able to bring its costs down since his return as CEO in October. Yet, despite his mission to bring more “beautiful products” to Twitter, few visible changes have come to the service over the last three months — let alone a small test with stickers on images and some more emoji.
Not everyone has lost faith in Twitter’s future. “We think the TWTR product team is at a decent cadence in terms of shipping new features today, but hasn’t yet come up with any ideas needed to meaningfully re-invigorate growth,” Ross Sandler of Deutsche Bank wrote in a research note earlier this month. “We expect to see further emphasis around video, real-time and the algorithmic timeline, and deeper integration with Periscope.”
Indeed, Dorsey laid out his five priorities last quarter: iterating on the main product, live-streaming video, supporting creators, prioritizing safety and its relations with developers. Each of those developments are still in play, as Twitter works on features like GIF search, locks down a streaming deal with the NFL, considers paying Vine creators, combats extremist messaging and creates a mobile app for developers.
New deals and new management changes could mean big moves in 2016. The NFL deal is another step for Twitter to monetize the logged-out user and capture local TV ad dollars. Looking beyond the 300 million active users, Twitter is hoping to profit from the 500 million people who may not have an account but see tweets online. “Initial performance from the pilot has shown that video view and click through rates for logged-out ads are similar to logged-in performance,” Dorsey said at the last earnings report.
To watch the NFL games on Twitter, people will not need sign up for an account.
But there’s concern coming into the deal for Twitter. Is the company properly staffed to build for and maintain a stream of a live sports game? “It’s one thing to have Odell Beckham Jr. Periscoping from the locker room,” Matt Smith, chief evangelist of streaming back-end provider Anvato, told International Business Times shortly after the deal’s announcement. “But streaming a three-and-a-half-hour game is an entirely different story.”
Are advertisers still interested in Twitter? A recent study from RBC Capital had 32 percent of respondents increasing their ad spends, which is a decrease from 54 percent about a year earlier. About 23 percent of the survey’s respondents said they had plans to cut ad spending on Twitter.
New ad products — such as First View, which gives a brand a top spot in a user's feed, event targeting and audience matching — have some advertisers listening. The pitch for Twitter as the best place for real-time event targeting still rings true to some. "While their user base may not be growing, there’s still tons of people using it, especially during big events, Grammys, Super Bowl and especially this year being a political year. That’s where conversations start," said Rye Clifton, director of experience at ad agency GSD&M.
Still, the microblogging site is nowhere near capturing as much attention as competitor Facebook. A study from Verto Analytics, which looks at app engagement in the U.S., found that Twitter use is highest among PC users, two hours per month, versus 1.1 hours on mobile. Meanwhile, a Facebook user in the U.S. spends 40.9 hours on the site via PC and 18.2 hours via smartphones.
Twitter is looking to reinvigorate its engagement with the help of new management as well. The company replaced two members of its board. PepsiCo Chief Financial Officer Hugh Johnston and longtime tech entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox will replace investor Peter Currie and former News Corp. Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin. “Originally I was on the board of AOL a couple years ago and that got me interested in this area where brands advertising and digital technology coverage,” Johnston told CNBC.
Dorsey said there will be more changes to Twitter’s board “soon, ones that will bring diversity and represent the strong communities on Twitter,” he tweeted. “This matters [and] is a must.”
Twitter has also been expanding its efforts internationally. Twitter hired a managing director for its operation in China. While the network is banned in that country, the hope is that Kathy Chen, who comes from Microsoft and Cisco, will interest more Chinese advertisers in buying on Twitter. The company is also making moves in its data licensing business, including pitching to businesses in Japan, the Associated Press reported.
But investors on Tuesday will be listening to what they can expect from Twitter’s big bets and current pull with advertisers. Twitter’s live-streaming product Periscope is competing with Facebook as the social networking giant makes an aggressive push into live video. Twitter has yet to reveal usage numbers of Moments, a curated feed of tweets that function similarly to Snapchat’s Live Stories.
Is Twitter still a giant in social media? Perhaps not as much as Facebook and Snapchat to some. “Longer term, we think Dorsey and team need time to ship new features and broaden the appeal of Twitter to more segments of the population. We see this at Snapchat and Facebook, and think Twitter can still find its place along-side these mega-apps,” Sandler of Deutsche Bank wrote.