Twitter shares have surged more than 40% this month — and even briefly touched an all-time high — on optimism that the social-media platform may finally be getting its business strategy straight with new ventures designed to help it branch out and bring in different types of revenue. On Thursday, investors will hear more about these efforts from Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey at the company’s analyst day.
As rosy as Dorsey’s presentation is likely to be, it’s important to remember that Twitter has a poor track record at expanding into new areas. With the stock trading where it is, investors may want to ask themselves, is it really different this time? And does Twitter deserve the benefit of the doubt? They may see something to cheer but, at least for now, I don’t.
Twitter’s latest rally began late last month after the company announced the acquisition of paid email-newsletter service Revue on Jan. 26. The move sparked enthusiasm that Twitter was getting serious about moving beyond its core advertising business model to make money in new ways, in this case subscriptions. This followed the launch of two other recent initiatives: Fleets, a Snapchat-like feature that allows users to post disappearing stories, and audio-based Spaces, a Clubhouse clone where users can hold live voice discussions with their followers.
It’s not that the strategy is off-base — Twitter needs to diversify. The problem is, when it comes to acquisitions, we have been here before. Remember Vine? Twitter acquired the short-form video service in 2012. It was the TikTok before TikTok, but it never became more than a passing fad and was eventually shut down. Similarly, Twitter bought live-streaming video app Periscope in 2015. It never really took off under Twitter’s umbrella and will be shuttered next month.
I’m not optimistic about Revue’s future prospects under Twitter’s umbrella either. Market-leader Substack has all the momentum in the paid newsletter space. On Feb. 4, Substack announced it had more than 500,000 paid subscriptions on its platform, with the top 10 writers collectively making more than $15 million a year.
The startup’s ease of use, more complete set of features and large community of readers from which to mine further paid subscriptions is difficult to match. That is why widely followed writers such as Paul Krugman are still choosing to go with Substack despite Revue’s much lower fee structure.
This gets at a deeper problem with all of Twitter’s new ventures, which is perhaps best articulated by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In 2012, as he was considering acquiring Instagram, he explained to his colleagues by email that there are a limited number of “social mechanics” to invent. Once a company wins at a specific mechanic, it is very difficult for others to catch up. At the time Instagram dominated photo-sharing; so what did Facebook do? Rather than create its own copycat version of the app, it bought Instagram. I believe Clubhouse, Substack and Snap — like Instagram — have achieved enough momentum to win their respective “social mechanics,” making Twitter’s entries into those areas ill-fated.
On top of all this, future audience growth is still a question mark for Twitter. While the company did handily beat fourth-quarter revenue expectations when it reported results for its December quarter earlier this month, it added fewer users than analysts expected.
Twitter also said it expects user growth to slow in 2021 compared with last year. Further, in perhaps the clearest sign of business has not been firing on all cylinders, the company’s employees will reportedly get lower bonuses. According to The Information, Twitter told its staff they will not receive full corporate bonus targets because the company had missed internal financial targets for 2020.
Even Twitter says non-advertising projects will take some time to show results. On the company’s Feb. 9 earnings call, Chief Financial Officer Ned Segal characterized its subscription projects as experiments this year and told investors not to expect “meaningful” revenue until next year. Given Twitter’s history, and as much as this revenue jolt may happen in time, I’ll believe it when I see it.
Tae Kim is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.
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