by Matt Kapko

Twitter Scores by Moving the Goal Posts

News Analysis
Aug 01, 2014 7 mins
Marketing Social Networking Apps Twitter

Twitter is at a crossroads as it strives to improve user experience and leverage greater opportunities in advertising and commerce. With a user base just one-fifth the size of Facebook, the company is beginning to change the script -- and it's working.

Twitter is moving the goal posts and Wall Street likes the new numbers it sees up on the scoreboard. The company’s monthly active user base grew 24 percent from the year-ago period to 271 million, but the actual reach of Twitter goes well beyond that, the social media company claims.

“There are hundreds of millions of additional unique visitors who come to Twitter every month but don’t log-in. When you consider the combination of monthly active users and unique visitors, the size of our audience on our owned and operated properties is two to three times that of just our monthly active user base, which we believe ranks us among the top-10 largest digitally connected audiences in the world,” CEO Dick Costolo tells analysts following the release of its latest earnings.

“Make no mistake, our total audience and reach represent a significant opportunity and we will continue to invest in maximizing the size of our audience,” he says.

Making that opportunity a reality has caused widespread turnover among the executive ranks of late, as Costolo retools the company for its next phase of growth. The company’s chief operating officer, chief financial officer, head of product and head of media partnerships have all departed or been re-assigned over a matter of months.

Ad Team Avoids Revolving Door

Twitter’s advertising team, however, remains mostly intact with Adam Bain, global president of revenue and partnerships, leading the charge. Revenue grew 124 percent year-over-year to $312 million and advertising revenue per thousand timeline views doubled over the same period to $1.60. Though net losses widened from $42.2 million in the year-ago period to $144.6 million, analysts and investors appear to be seeing more light at the end of the tunnel.

Company stock roared, jumping as high as 32 percent immediately after the social network reported its latest earnings, and ended the week with a market cap it hasn’t seen since late April. Despite all the activity and newfound optimism in Twitter’s future, the stock price is still hovering around the same rate it commanded at the time of its initial public offering in November 2013.

[Related: 14 Must-See Social Media Marketing Success Stories ]

While Facebook slogged through 15 months of operations before it regained the value it enjoyed at the time of its IPO in May 2012, Twitter has reclaimed its IPO-level value in almost half that amount of time (or 8 months).

There’s no doubt Twitter is gaining traction, but the pace of growth has remained steady for the past few quarters. The World Cup marked another watershed moment for the platform, but executives are carefully avoiding the temptation to raise expectations based on a global event of such magnitude that only comes around every four years.

[Related: How Social Media Is Enhancing the World Cup Experience]

Excluding the curated World Cup experience Twitter initiated during the month-long competition, the company’s timeline views jump 15 percent year-over-year to 173 billion. “Mobile also contributed to be a strong driver in the quarter with 81 percent of total ad revenue generated from mobile devices,” marking a 67 percent gain from the year prior, says Mike Gupta, who is leaving his post as CFO to become the company’s senior vice president of strategic investments.

In some ways, Twitter’s fortunes are improving in line with the company’s capability to make more from less. “Ad revenue grew 129 percent on a year-over-year basis, despite a 35 percent decline in cost per ad engagements. The increase was driven by total ad engagements which grew more than 250 percent year-over-year, reflecting higher quality ads, improved prediction and targeting, and the increased use of rich media by advertisers,” Gupta adds.

Twitter makes no money off unique visitors that aren’t logged in to the site or tweets that are embedded elsewhere, but the company is beginning to “experiment” with those audiences in an attempt to change that. Costolo says the company is not monetizing those off-network audiences today, but that it probably will over the long term using the same types of ad units it delivers on Twitter today.

Growing reach and audience is all well and good, but until Twitter can derive revenue from syndicated content, mentions and its overall popularity in other media, its financial gains and outlook will be limited.

Amplifying Twitter’s Reach in Mass Media

The good news for Twitter and its investors is that the path to riches on off-network media is already well-defined. The company’s TV ad targeting mechanism, Amplify, enables networks and content creators to extend their reach beyond organic followers and increase the tune-in to their audiences, says incoming CFO Anthony Noto.

[Related: Mobile Advertising Will Dominate Social Networks]

“Amplify is the perfect example of how we can increase that tune-in and create a bigger audience for the content producer and the content licenser, which drives more advertising dollars,” he says. “Ultimately it will pay more for that content and that content producer will want to partner with Twitter.”

Leveraging relationships with celebrities and institutions in media and entertainment has been Twitter’s approach for many years now. Rarely does a primetime show or major sporting event go off without a reference to Twitter or more likely a detailed plan to engage fans with a hashtag or promotion in real time.

Indeed, despite a user base that’s just one-fifth the size of Facebook, Twitter is oftentimes dominating the public conversation and rising to the top of popular culture. The National Basketball Association just announced that its official handle (@NBA) will be on every official game ball for the upcoming season. That level of mass media promotion just doesn’t happen as often for Facebook these days.

“I think Twitter is unique in that most technology companies disrupt other industries and disrupt other businesses, but Twitter actually makes other companies and other brands better than it would otherwise be,” says Noto, a former securities analyst who was also previously the CFO of the National Football League. “I think that’s the unique complementary nature of our information network that really makes us partner with so many types of companies, which increases the amount of information we have and content which aggregates a larger audience and it just continues that virtual cycle.”

[Related: Twitter Readies Design Changes As It Unveils New Ad Offerings]

When major news breaks around the world, Twitter’s TV and news partners are driving people’s attention to the platform as they look for content about what is happening and unfolding in real time. “Many of them browse around, some of them search, some of them look at profiles. And obviously from the numbers we’re seeing, most of them decide not to log in,” says Costolo. “We provide limited content to those hundreds of millions of other users who are unique visitors to our properties, and we see an opportunity, a big opportunity to serve them just as well.”

In-Tweet Shopping Coming Soon?

Opportunities abound, but driving sales directly on the platform could very well become the Holy Grail for Twitter. The recent acquisitions of CardSpring and TapCommerce have emboldened Twitter’s plans for commerce as it continues to experiment in the nascent space of social shopping.

Expectations are running high with Nathan Hubbard, former CEO of Ticketmaster, leading the charge for commerce on Twitter. The company has been running tests with Amazon since May that enable users to add products to their shopping carts via a tweet. Meanwhile some users have spotted a “buy now” button embedded on promoted tweets on Twitter’s mobile app.

Costolo declined to provide more details about Twitter’s plans for in-tweet shopping, but every indication suggests a significant change and new revenue stream may be coming sooner than later.