Wall Street has given Twitter a pass over the past two years, and it has all been because of growth. Not in its user base, since that’s never been Twitter’s strength. But growth in revenue? That’s always been steady.
It was the cornerstone of Twitter’s reassuring message to Wall Street: We don’t have as many users as we want, but we sure know how to make money off the ones we do have.
But now that has also become a problem. Revenue growth stumbled last quarter, and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is tasked with the tough challenge of defending slow growth on two different fronts.
What happened this quarter wasn’t a one-time glitch and spells more challenges going forward. The issue was the company’s direct response ads — the kind of ad a marketer might buy to drive a specific goal, like an app download or a website visit. Twitter changed its pricing model on these ads, effectively lowering prices. It used to charge for any user click within the tweet — a favorite, retweet or even a reply — but now it’s only charging for the end result sought by the advertiser, such as a website visit or app install. That’s better for advertisers, but it also means Twitter is charging for fewer clicks, which means it’s generating less money.
Why change an ad strategy that seemed to be working quite well? Twitter didn’t fully explain the switch, but a company doesn’t usually lower prices unless customers — in this case, advertisers — complain. The new pricing model is clearly a long-term strategy and could eventually spur marketers to spend more in the future.
That’s not happening yet. In fact, Twitter says it will likely bring in less money this year than it previously expected, partly because of the ad change. It has been trading down since the earnings report and has lost about one-fifth of its value.
So what happens next for Twitter? Here are a few options.
Change the management
Costolo is no stranger to the hot seat, and he’s sitting on it once again. He says he’s not worried about his job security, but as one person close to the company told Re/code back in January: “Dick has nine lives, but he might be on his eighth at this point.”
Costolo now oversees a team that has disappointed investors on both user growth and revenue growth. Whether things are going good or bad, it starts with the CEO, and Costolo is now under a very bright spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
An activist investor takeover
We’ve written about this before, and Twitter’s current position makes it all the more intriguing for an activist to come stir things up.
Twitter only has one share class, meaning there isn’t a super-voting group of shareholders (like some other companies have), making it easier for an activist to buy up shares and make a stink.
Still, one major hurdle is how Twitter votes for board directors. The company staggers the terms of its board members so only two directors come up for election at a time. Even if an activist firm successfully campaigned for its own directors, it would only be able to install two people at a time, which would only account for a quarter of the board seats. For the annual meeting in June, board members David Rosenblatt and Ev Williams will be coming up for re-election, and it doesn’t look like Twitter’s board will be getting any new blood anytime soon.
A possible takeover
Despite all its issues, Twitter has a lot of value beyond its $27 billion market cap. There’s no doubt that it handles live events better than any platform out there (sorry, Facebook), and while its user growth has been slow, it’s still moving in the right direction. That makes it an intriguing spot for advertisers, who are increasingly looking for ways to get in front of consumers in the moment.
Still, Twitter would be an expensive buy, even with a 20 percent stock dip yesterday. You could probably count the potential suitors on one hand: Facebook, Apple, Google, Alibaba, SoftBank.
Costolo said on CNBC’s “Squawk Alley” Wednesday he isn’t thinking about that as an option.
“We have to think about running the company that we’re running,” he said when asked about a possible Google acquisition. “I have every belief that Twitter is a wonderful, beautiful, independent, viable, long-term company.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.