Twitter needs a silver bullet, but Jack Dorsey only has shotgun pellets
Jack Dorsey finally has an answer to all those people saying Twiter is dead: “Twitter is live.”
For some reason, the italic emphasis in that sentence, as per the shareholder letter released yesterday, lies on the “is.” Not the “live” and certainly not on the “Twitter.” Dorsey explained it this way: “Live commentary. Live conversations. Live connections... Twitter has always been considered a second screen for what's happening in the world, and we believe we can become the first screen for everything that's happening now."
Anyway, that's the pitch to the hundreds of millions of people who aren't using Twitter. For its core users, however, Live Twitter will mean commentating, conversing, and connecting in real-time around the deathwatch that has arisen around Twitter itself. Which has become like a corporate snuff video played in such slow motion that it's taking years for the spectacle to unfold.
In substance, Dorsey's vision isn't much different from the one he laid out last July: a Twitter “as easy as looking out your window to see what's happening... You should expect Twitter to encourage live and direct conversation and participation around whatever you share.” “Live” is just a more compact and polished version of that earlier vision, an upgraded slogan doubling as a soothing mantra Dorsey can chant at this year's shareholder meeting.
Reaction to this new vision is split. One view is to see it as sharply focused around the social network's strengths and capable of driving changes in the feed to free it from the friction that has kept new users away. The other view sees Dorsey once again redrawing his roadmap, still unsure how to get Twitter to where it needs to go – that magical, social-media utopia where Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram frolick in the sunshine.
Time will tell which view is correct, but the earnings Periscope left me leaning toward the latter. That is, Dorsey is re-tinkering with Twitter in a bid to buy yet more time. For most of its history, Twitter has always been just a few, key product tweaks away from becoming a mainstream phenomenon.
Dorsey announced some new tweaks yesterday – the long-expected, much-dreaded timeline revamp, the integration of Periscope feeds into tweets, and so on. Still more innovations were promised, involving unspecified investments that will weigh on profit margins this year.
Investors themselves seemed unsure how to read the new roadmap. When Twitter's new vision dropped, along with its earnings, the stock fell as much as 14 percent in a matter of minutes. Then it erased all those losses over the next hour, before settling down again to a 4 percent loss in late trading.
More than any vision, this volatility may have been caused by disclosures on Twitter's monthly active users, its most studied metric. MAU's were flat worldwide with the previous quarter and down 2 percent in the US. But Twitter also said monthly actives in January bounced back to levels in the third quarter. So, still not growing but at least not declining. That's what passes as a reprieve at Twitter these days.
As if to underscore Twitter's willingess to shake things up, the conference call discussing earnings was limited to five minutes – including a recitation of the “live” spiel – and the rest of the hour to a Q&A session. This was a canny move – underscoring how serious Twitter is about enabling conversation. The problem was, many of the questions were answered by passages from the shareholder letter, which seemed to have been memorized by the executives on the call.
Dorsey kept returning to the “five priorities in 2016” that were outlined in the letter, priorities that are familiar to anyone who has followed Twitter in recent years: refining the core service, live video, creators, safety, and developers. Many of the action items outlined to address these priorities in 2016, however, seem less than game-changing.
For example: “We are going to fix the broken windows and confusing parts, like the .@name syntax and @reply rules, that we know inhibit usage and drive people away.” Integrating Periscope with tweets and partnering with GoPro are also smart moves, while improving safety is a welcome vow. But these are incremental measures a social media company would make even if it were thriving. Facebook's tweaks are just as ambitious, if not more so.
Dorsey needs a silver bullet to slay whatever invisible demon has been keeping new users from signing up, and sticking with, the service. The impression left yesterday is that all he has is a handful of shotgun pellets, which he is firing scattershot in any direction that seems promising.
(While Twitter is pondering incremental changes to engage more users, it may consider this one: Don't call returning members, as executives repeatedly did on the call, “resurrected users.” I don't know what jargon factory came up with that one, but it morbidly and solipsistically suggests that anyone not on Twitter is dead – not a strong marketing pitch. And it didn't sit well with Christians I ran the phrase by, who either conveyed disapproval or laughed out loud when they heard it.)
The silver lining in Twitter's earnings is one investors have yet to get excited about. If users aren't coming to the site, advertisers are. Twitter's active advertisers last quarter rose 90 percent to 130,000, many of them smaller businesses that took to the self-serving ad platform the company introduced. This has increased ad loads in feeds, although mostly overseas. CFO Anthony Noto deflected a question about whether bigger ad loads were hurting user engagement.
Also deflected was a question about how Dorsey is splitting his time between Twitter and Square. Here is Dorsey's vague answer. “I have set up a structure that is working very well for me, so that I can spend meaningful time at both companies, and I have enough flexibility in the schedule... So we have a structure that allows me to see what’s happening in the week, we set off the week together at both companies, and we have checkpoints.”
In other words, Microsoft Outlook, apparently.
What's working very well for Dorsey doesn't seem to be working well at all for investors in Twitter and Square. They have driven Square's value down 32 percent from its first day of trading last November and Twitter's value down 43 percent in the same period.
Unlike the previous two times Dorsey spoke about Twitter earnings, the stock didn't crater this week – at least not for long. Maybe that means the market is willing to give Dorsey more time to fix the user-growth problem. Or maybe it's because Twitter is now trading a little above 4 times its 2015 revenue. Or, who knows, maybe even people placing sell orders sometimes need to catch their breath.