Sunday, February 12, 2017

Why Are They Twittering? A Modest Proposal.

Twitter just reported another in a string of 'disappointing' financial reports showing:
   - year-over-year revenue growth below 1%
   - effectively flat user growth (4.5% yer-over-year vs 3.3% 3Q year-over-year)
   - average revenue per user (ARPU) fell 4%
   - global ad revenue flat, US ad revenue down 7%
   - stock-based compensation up1%, marketing expenses up
   - operating loss on $771M

TWTR is hitting new lows on the news, but the company still has an $11B market cap.

This valuation reflects classic "there must be a pony in here somewhere" thinking - shareholders are generally loathe to watch their investment (or stock options) burst into flame, so it is not surprising to see intense amounts of flailing and bloodletting while players scramble to patch the leaks in this Titanic.

Just before this report, I had the opportunity to explore Twitter's future with a bunch of undergraduate business majors.  Not one of the 30 or so students (who should be squarely in the company's target market) claimed to be a regular Twitter user.  Not one of them said they would pay a subscription for the service.  When asked to imagine what Twitter might do differently, their responses were not much different from what Twitter management is proposing - but when I asked how successful any of those moves might be, I got shoulder shrugs.

One brave soul suggested that Twitter close down, not unlike Michael Dell's approach to Apple during that company's darker days.  While I can see the merits in that option (it's certainly better than watching the company's cash pile shrivel to zero), I think there is something about Twitter that keeps everybody from just throwing up their hands.  But that something may not be, as they say, "monitizable".

Where Twitter has consistently shown value and differentiation is as a lightweight, organic, slippery communications conduit for transient social events - from fluff like the latest Kardashian antics to
more meaningful events, like Arab Spring.  This makes sense given its embrace of lightweight clients built around SMS messaging.

Twitter has tried to get celebrities to pay the freight with 'promoted' tweets, and there is probably a niche market in the PR industry for this that is sustainable, but not at the scale dreamed by Twitter investors.  Likewise, there may also be a news industry niche as a headline aggregator.  Both of those niches, however, are coming under more intense fire from competitors.

One Twitter response is video.  Not only is Twitter late to this party, but stuffing a Twitter feed with video a) requires a bigger client that is harder to make ubiquitous), and b) gums up the lightweight, casual Twitter interface that is one of its key differentiators.

So, Twitter may ultimately be one of those good ideas that is not a good business.  If the world values the original idea, a non-shutdown option presents itself:  turn Twitter into a non-profit.

Making Twitter a non-profit organization would preserve the parts of Twitter that society seems to value, while freeing it of the constant struggle to justify its existence to Wall St.

It is possible?  Maybe.  What if:
    - A majority of Twitter shareholders agree that this is a good idea (or at least a way to salvage
      something from their investment)
    - The IRS lets shareholders contribute their TWTR stock to a new tax-exempt non-profit
       foundation and take a deduction (at their basis, not an inflated value)?
    - Substantial additional reductions in headcount get operating expenses to a level that
      can be supported by interest on Twitter's existing cash (around $3B) plus some donations
      from foundations interested in freedom of speech and communications around the world?
      This would imply some R&D to make messages hard to stop.

That organization would have a comprehensible mission, and the hope of a sustainable future.
As opposed to Twitter, which has an incomprehensible mission, and a dubious future.

Full disclosure:  I'm an extremely casual (a few times a year) Twitter user.  It doesn't work on my dumb phone.  I tried on my desktop, and the content wasn't compelling compared to my Facebook feed.  I get my stupid Presidential tweet fix from Facebook re-posts.  I'm not trying to build a business based on "followers", so that aspect is also irrelevant.  After this experience, I am reminded of nothing so much as Biggus Dickus's query in Monty Python's Life of Brian:  "Why are they twittering"?