Twitter Needs Fresh Ideas — And Fresh Blood — to Regain Wall Street Favor

Twitter Hindenburg
Jim Cooke for Variety

Jack Dorsey took the stage at Twitter HQ in San Francisco on Jan. 28 with a morale-rousing message for his troops: We will win as #oneteam.

The CEO’s rallying cry spawned a hashtag lovefest among company Tweeps, who professed their loyalty — where else — on the social network’s service. “As a 5 year Twitter veteran, I often get asked ‘why do you still work at Twitter?’” wrote one. “It’s real simple… The people. #oneteam.”

Twitter’s investors, however, have not shown the same adoration lately. Shares are down nearly 30% since the beginning of the year, and this week the stock has fallen about 10% as investors have grown gloomy on the company’s prospects to jump-start growth.

Dorsey’s speech, part of Twitter’s semiweekly employee town halls, was aimed a pumping up staffers after word that four top execs were flying the coop: global media head Katie Jacobs Stanton, SVP of product Kevin Weil, SVP of engineering Alex Roetter and HR VP Brian “Skip” Schipper.

Dorsey was cleaning house after retaking the CEO job in October, according to analysts, although the CEO tweeted that the execs each chose to leave. In any case, he now needs a new cadre of lieutenants to help solve Twitter’s nagging problem of how to attract millions of new users by making the service easier to use. Twitter is “a pain in the butt to use,” Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said. “Your mom is not on Twitter — that’s what’s wrong.”

Twitter did have hiring news amid the departures: its first chief marketing officer, Leslie Berland, formerly American Express’ EVP of advertising and marketing. Her challenge will be to explain to non-Twitter users why they should join the service, something the company has never done well, Pachter said.

But Twitter has had trouble landing on the right team to fix its woes. It’s been plagued for years with high turnover in its top ranks; that includes the ankling of chief exec Dick Costolo last year. Eight of the 13 executives who presented at the company’s November 2014 analyst day have now left.

“They desperately need to retain rock-star talent,” said Jesse Redniss, partner with consulting firm Brave Ventures and former USA Network head of digital. “They need a visionary, seasoned exec to build relationships with the media companies.”

Dorsey will have a chance to present a new plan for Twitter when the company reports Q4 earnings on Wednesday, Feb. 10. And impatient investors are expecting big things. “If Jack’s strategy is to just keep doing what they’re doing,” Pachter said, “that would be a failure.”

In recent weeks, the stock has been sent seesawing after rumors about acquisitions or investments. Twitter shares climbed more than 11% Monday following a report that the social company has been in talks about some kind of private-equity deal, but the stock retreated Tuesday to near all-time lows. Two weeks ago, the stock rallied on rumors of potential M&A interest from New Corp before the Rupert Murdoch-controlled media company shot down the rumors as untrue.

As far as Twitter’s need to appeal to a broader audience, Dorsey has admitted that it’s an issue. “Twitter is getting easier to use every single week with a steady increase of launches,” he said on October’s earnings call, citing the recent launch of polls and Moments, a new section of its apps that aggregates news content from the service. Twitter is mulling other ideas, including expanding the iconic 140-character limit to allow for much longer posts.

But the service may have to change far more drastically for the Street to believe that Dorsey — who’s still splitting his time as CEO of his payments startup, Square — can turn things around in terms of growing users. Twitter’s muddled product road map has moved in fits and starts; the company launched Moments more than two years after buying social-analytics startup Trendrr. (It’s worth noting that Weil was the company’s fifth product chief in five years.)

“Investors want to see a product that is more intuitive to use, and for the average person to understand why they’d want to be on Twitter in the first place,” said SunTrust analyst Bob Peck.

Twitter’s struggles look even more acute in comparison to Facebook. The No. 1 social juggernaut continues to thrive, growing faster than Twitter even though it’s five times as big. Facebook reached a staggering 1.59 billion active monthly users globally as of December 2015, up 14% year-over-year, and posted a quarterly profit of $1.56 billion (its first time topping $1 billion). Analysts expect Twitter to hit 310 million monthly users, up 7.6% from a year earlier and just 1% sequentially.

And Facebook is now zeroing in on an area that’s been a core part of the Twitter DNA: instantaneously delivered content. Facebook last week launched live-streaming video for U.S. iPhone users, taking on Twitter’s Periscope, which has had early momentum in the space. Facebook also bowed “Sports Stadium,” a dedicated section that lets users follow play-by-play commentary and video clips for sporting events, just in time for Super Bowl 50. “We pretty confident that real-time sharing is an increasingly important part of the platform and one we’ll continue to invest in,” COO Sheryl Sandberg told analysts last week.

If Facebook’s live-content initiatives take root, that could be trouble for Twitter’s long-touted superiority as a companion to sports and other live TV events. And ultimately, regardless of Dorsey’s next steps and executive hires, Twitter at this point may never grow to be anywhere as big as Facebook.

Even the brightest minds in tech may not be able to help Twitter surmount disadvantages that go back to the inception of the platform. “Facebook captures the ecosystem of your life,” said Redniss, “whereas Twitter was born out of quick replies on text messaging.”

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