By just about any measure, Snap (NYSE:SNAP) had a horrendous 2018. Shares lost over 60% of their value, and the company prematurely rolled out its controversial redesign that sparked massive user backlash and contributed to the first sequential decline in daily active users (DAUs). There was also a mass exodus of executives that rattled investor confidence in CEO Evan Spiegel's management style. Additionally, Snap lost $1.3 billion last year.
However, one bearish Street analyst has just turned bullish.
Hitting the last price target
BTIG Research has upgraded its rating on Snap today from neutral to buy, while assigning a price target of $15. Analyst Rich Greenfield had downgraded Snap shares to sell back in September and assigned a $5 price target, expressing concern that Snap's cash burn could require a capital raise by 2020. BTIG boosted its rating to neutral in December (with no price target) after shares had reached that $5 price target and bottomed out.
"While we no longer perceive a compelling risk/reward to shorting the stock at current levels, we remain concerned about the company's future and do not yet see the core elements of a turnaround that got us excited about Twitter in early 2017," Greenfield wrote in December.
Things have improved on several fronts in the months since, leading to today's upgrade. BTIG notes five specific areas where Snap is making progress.
International advertisers are boosting spending
Many U.S. advertisers have been reducing their ad spending on Snapchat, instead focusing their ad dollars on Facebook's Instagram. That has resulted in lower ad prices, which are now attracting advertisers outside of the U.S. Return on investment (ROI) is a critical measure for advertisers, and lower ad prices effectively lower the bar necessary for an advertiser to consider a campaign a success.
Non-U.S. advertisers don't tend to view Snapchat as a brand platform, and instead look at it as more of a performance platform, according to Greenfield. "The good news for Snapchat is that performance advertising can scale rapidly, enabling meaningful revenue beats," the analyst writes.
Greenfield has also observed an improvement in the quality of ads in Snapchat's Discover section. Whereas Discover used to be populated with low-quality salacious clickbait, the quality has improved in recent weeks to increasingly feature premium publisher content. BTIG attributes the change to improvements in the curation algorithms and is optimistic that Snapchat will continue to better distinguish between user-generated content and professional content going forward.
That should lead to a better user experience and potentially bring in more advertisers.
Core users aren't going anywhere
Snapchat's ambitions of expanding into older demographics may not be realistic, but the good news is that the platform's core users remain very committed to the platform. After losing some users, DAUs appear to have now stabilized at 186 million in the fourth quarter.
Snap has positioned itself as fundamentally a communications platform, and in that respect, users still find value. The company has an opportunity to grow its user base by expanding internationally, in Greenfield's view. For example, Snap has been trying to grow its presence in India, adding Discover in November, despite Spiegel once reportedly saying he didn't care to expand into "poor countries like India and Spain."
The Android version of Snapchat has long suffered from ongoing performance problems, which the company has finally started to address. Spiegel spoke at a tech conference last month, emphasizing how important Android was for Snap's future, sending shares higher in the process.
These efforts are starting to pay off, with Greenfield reporting that "performance has been notably better." The company may have difficulty bringing users back, but still has an opportunity to get first-time users on the platform with the new version.
Is the exodus over?
Following considerable executive turnover, things have calmed down on the talent front. Internal morale appears to be improving, and Greenfield considers some of the new blood that Snap has brought in, such as Chief Business Officer Jeremi Gorman, to be a "meaningful step-up in management quality."
Greenfield absolutely nailed his sell call and $5 price target. Can he do it again?