Twitter Still Has Its Issues but There Has Been Some Progress Lately

With a unique platform and user base that remains a small fraction of Facebook and Instagram's, moderate improvements can be enough for Twitter to deliver solid user growth.
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When you own a one-of-a-kind communications platform that politicians, celebrities, media outlets, brands and governments all use to connect with audiences, you only need to run yourself so well to be financially successful.

That’s arguably one takeaway from Twitter's (TWTR) - Get Report Q4 report, which led its stock to rise 15% in Thursday trading. Three months after missing its consensus Q3 revenue estimate by $50 million, the company topped its Q4 revenue consensus by $15 million (EPS missed due to a pickup in spending).

Annual revenue growth accelerated to 11% from 9%, and ad revenue growth improved to 12% from 8%. International ad revenue rose a paltry 3% as Twitter continues addressing issues related to mobile app install ad sales in Asia, but U.S. ad sales rose 20% with the help of strong video ad growth.

Twitter also saw its monetizable daily active users (mDAUs - users who are logged into Twitter and able to see ads) rise 21% annually to 152 million, topping consensus by 4 million. mDAUs in the U.S., which still accounts for close to 60% of Twitter’s revenue, rose by 4 million to 31 million.

Relative to peers, a lot of Twitter’s numbers still don’t look that impressive. Whereas Twitter’s revenue rose 11% in Q4 to $1.01 billion, Facebook (FB) - Get Report saw its revenue grow 25% to $21.08 billion. Mark Zuckerberg’s firm also reported having 1.66 billion DAUs for Facebook proper and Messenger (up 9%), of which 190 million were in the U.S. and Canada.

Snap’s (SNAP) - Get Report Q4 revenue ($561 million) remained much lower than Twitter’s in spite of 44% growth. But the company did report its DAUs grew 17% in Q4 to 218 million. North American DAUs, which include Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, totaled 86 million.

I’ve often been critical of Twitter over the years from a product standpoint, and a lot of the things that I’ve criticized still don’t by any means look fixed. These issues run the gamut from ugly user behavior (and the ways that Twitter’s mechanics can incentivize such behavior), to the challenges that users can face when it comes to finding accounts and content that might interest them, to the fact that regular Twitter users can feel ignored in a way that regular Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat users usually don’t.

But Twitter has admittedly made some meaningful improvements over the last couple of years. Notable changes for the better include the 280-character limit, feed algorithm and notification improvements, a revamped private messaging experience and (though more work still needs to be done here) larger attempts to improve the quality of discourse on the platform.

And (in spite of recent stumbles) there have been meaningful improvements on the advertising side as well, with Twitter improving its targeting and measurement abilities and stepping up investments in video ad products and self-serve ad solutions.

When one combines such service and advertising improvements with the fact that Twitter still gives its users a unique ability to both see what high-profile public figures are saying and put their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in the world at a particular moment, you have a recipe for growing revenue and user bases that remain a small fraction of Facebook and Instagram’s. Even if a lot of things could still be done better.