Home >companies >Twitter’s loss exceeds estimates as user growth slows

San Francisco: Twitter Inc. posted slowing user growth and a net loss that was wider than analysts’ estimates in its first earnings report as a public company, sending shares down as much as 19% in extended trading.

There were 241 million monthly active users in the fourth quarter, Twitter said in a statement on Wednesday, up 30% from 185 million a year earlier and slower than 39% seen in the prior period. Usage also declined, with 148 billion views of Twitter timelines compared with 159 billion views in the third quarter. Net loss was $511.5 million compared with $8.7 million a year earlier, and was more than double analysts’ projections of $253.5 million.

The results indicate that Twitter may find it difficult to justify its $37.4 billion market capitalization, a valuation that is higher than Target Corp. and Salesforce.com Inc., as some of its early rapid growth may be levelling out. Since its November initial public offering, Twitter’s stock has soared on optimism that sales will grow as the company rolls out new targeting and mobile-advertising products.

“We are concerned about the slowing user growth and the lower engagement data and whether or not they’re going to be able to sustain momentum," said Scott Kessler, an analyst at S&P Capital IQ Inc., who has a sell rating on the stock. “If they’re not sustaining momentum in those areas, it’s going to call into question the value proposition that they can provide to global advertisers."

Comeback plan

Chief executive officer Dick Costolo said on the earnings call that the company is addressing the slowing growth with a plan to increase the number of users and engagement, primarily by making the site easier to use.

“It will be a combination of changes introduced over the course of the year that will start to change the slope of the growth curve," he said.

The stock dropped in extended trading after declining less than 1% to $65.97 at the close in New York on Wednesday. Twitter has more than doubled since it debuted on the stock market at $26 a share on 6 November. Twitter trades at 33 times projected 2014 sales, making it pricier than Facebook Inc., at 17 times, and LinkedIn Corp., at 12 times.

Revenue was $243 million in the fourth quarter, up from $112 million a year earlier, the San Francisco-based company said. Analysts had projected an average $218.1 million, according to estimates compiled by Bloomberg. About 75% of Twitter’s advertising revenue came from mobile devices.

Twitter said its fourth-quarter net loss was driven by a $521 million stock-based compensation expense, while the company’s total spending jumped to $752 million, up more than six times from $121 million a year earlier.

User engagement

Over the quarter, the number of timeline views may have decreased because Twitter has been working to make each timeline view more valuable, with more people sharing and clicking to favourite each others’ messages, Costolo said on the call.

Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said the slowing user growth was troubling, given that Twitter’s advertising business depends on more people spending time on the service.

“They’ve got some user engagement issues," said Blau. “What I don’t see here is any kind of formula that says they’ve got the killer gigantic big kinds of products and revenues that you see from companies like Facebook and Google. They’re trying to fix it, but they’re not there yet."

Twitter’s guidance

Twitter forecast first-quarter revenue of $230 million to $240 million, topping analysts’ estimates of $214.9 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The company said revenue for the full year could reach $1.15 billion to $2 billion. It projected 2014 capital expenditures of as much as $390 million.

Twitter, which initially didn’t price its IPO aggressively, is seeking to avoid the fate of some other Internet companies that went public in the past few years that were hyped at the time of their offerings. Facebook, Groupon Inc. and Zynga Inc. all dropped more than 50% within a few months of their initial share sales. While Facebook’s stock has since recovered, Groupon and Zynga remain below their IPO prices.

Facebook last week said quarterly revenue rose 63% from a year earlier, with more than half of advertising sales coming from mobile devices, while net income increased more than eightfold. The results sent the social network’s stock soaring.

Mobile ads

Twitter is trying to capitalize on the growth of advertising on smartphones and tablets, where most of its users spend their time. The company has added features for advertisers, such as one that lets them target people who are already interested in a brand’s products. Twitter is also working to expand promotions outside of its social network after acquiring MoPub, a mobile ad exchange.

The company has stepped up the pace of its product development in order to attract users. Twitter began highlighting images in timeline feeds over the past few months and enabled people to send photos through direct messages, in competition with applications such as Facebook’s Instagram and Snapchat Inc.

“Twitter will also focus on improving its messaging capabilities and experiment with displaying information in a more topic-based format, which helps newer users understand the service more than chronological displays can," Costolo said.

Twitter isn’t predicted to make a profit until 2016. Analysts have been split on the company’s potential, with price targets as low as $20 from Hudson Square Research or as high as $75 at Stifel Nicolaus. BLOOMBERG

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