It's been a wild couple of weeks for Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) shareholders. On Feb. 10, the day Twitter shared its 2015 Q4 and annual earnings, its stock was trading at $14.98. By the next day's close, Twitter shares had dropped to $14.31, a 4.5% decline from their already depressed levels. Poor monthly active user (MAU) news wasn't the only reason cited for the stock's drop, either.
Guidance for Q1 2016 also hit Twitter investors where it hurt, coming in below consensus analyst expectations. The company forecasts first-quarter revenue in the $595 million to $610 million range, much lower than analysts' consensus estimate of $633 million. Not bad, but jumping 20% in value -- give or take -- which Twitter had done as of this writing since hitting its post-earnings low?
Just the facts
Twitter reported a 48% jump in sales in the fourth quarter, breaking the $700 million revenue plateau for the first time. But the increase in ad revenue in Q4 to $641 million fell short of the $647.7 million industry-watchers expected. Combined with Twitter's disappointing guidance and MAU weakness, it seemed investors' initial negative reaction was warranted.
Fair or not, Twitter is often compared to Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) on a number of fronts, including MAU and revenue growth. Despite being more than eight times the size of Twitter as measured by sales, Facebook still grew at a faster pace than Twitter last quarter. Facebook's stellar 2015 was capped off by a 52% pop in Q4 revenue, climbing to $5.84 billion.
On the MAU front, Facebook added another 40 million users at the end of 2015 and now boasts 1.59 billion monthly visitors. More impressive still is that over 1 billion people access the site every day. Facebook's continued user growth and skyrocketing sales relative to its size make Twitter's results look even worse by comparison.
Where to from here?
Looking ahead, if Twitter hits $600 million in sales this quarter -- about the midpoint of its Q1 forecast -- that would be a 37% improvement over 2015's Q1. Should that come to pass, a nearly 40% improvement in revenue year-over-year would be nothing to sneeze at. But considering Twitter's size, even that wouldn't be moving the needle enough. It's awfully early in what should be a high-growth phase for Twitter to report slowing sales relative to prior quarters.
To be fair, Twitter's recent past and expected future are not all doom and gloom. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said the "lost" MAUs reported last quarter -- from 307 million to 305 million -- have already returned to "Q3 levels." Last quarter saw a 90% increase in "active advertisers" to 130,000 thanks to the growing number of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that joined the Twitter advertising party in Q4.
Testing began last quarter on ways to try to get its ads in front of the more than 500 million Twitter visitors who don't log into the site. Not necessarily a good sign, but Twitter is trying to make the most of it by opening the advertising doors to reach both active users and those 500 million plus "fly-bys." Though the sample size was small, early indications were mildly encouraging.
As with Facebook, Twitter also pointed to video spots as a "meaningful contributor" to its ad sales. The relative newness of incorporating video across Twitter hasn't prevented a third of its "managed accounts" from coming on board.
But Twitter's potential "upsides" are just that: potential. Dorsey knew he had some work to do when he signed on as Twitter CEO, and it is possible SMB and video growth, along with improved ad measurement tools for marketers, could help turn the tide. But given Twitter's history, basing an investment decision on "coulds" at this stage is an iffy strategy, to say the least.
Other than short-term traders looking for a quick turnaround, nothing has fundamentally changed with Twitter to push its stock price up. User growth is still stagnant, and the pace of revenue growth -- while increasing -- is beginning to slow. And don't be surprised to see a lot of stock price volatility on the horizon. Why? Because day traders and other short-timers aren't interested in whether Dorsey's initiatives will eventually work: They'll have already moved on to the next "opportunity."