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A bull, a bear, and a bird: breaking down the contrasting takes on Twitter's potential

A bull, a bear, and a bird: breaking down the contrasting takes on Twitter's potential


Can Twitter shake the fail whale for a high-flying IPO?

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Twitter is a company full of contradictions. The service is unavoidable in daily life, mentioned prominently by radio DJs, TV news anchors, pop celebrities, and star athletes. At the same time, the company is perceived as too confusing for the mainstream user, and with less than 300 million users, seen as relatively small when compared to Facebook’s 1 billion. As it prepares for its initial public offering, there will be a chorus of voices expressing optimism and doubt about Twitter's business prospects. Below is a collection of the crucial facts and salient arguments you can expect to hear.

Skeptics will say that Twitter has a growth problem. The company reportedly has somewhere in the realm of 240 to 260 million users, far short of 400 million, the target set for this year by CEO Dick Costolo. Churn is also an issue, with a large percentage of users reportedly signing up to try the service but quickly giving up, a phenomenon dubbed "Twitter quitters." Of the roughly 1 billion users who have opened a Twitter account, just a quarter are still active.

Of the one billion Twitter accounts, just a quarter are active

While Twitter may have issues with user growth, one area where it’s likely to shine is in terms of its burgeoning business. The company is said to have pulled in around $350 million last year and is reportedly on track to reach around $600 million this year. Revenue growth is rumored to still be accelerating, meaning the company could pull in more than $1 billion in 2014. That's a story Wall Street can get excited about.

Compared to services like Gmail or Facebook, it appears Twitter also has less personal information about its users. It certainly has a compelling interest graph for each user based on who they follow and what they tweet about — but it has far less granular data than Gmail, which scans the contents of your daily communications, or Facebook, which often has a detailed personal biography put in by each user. This matters in the long term, because marketers are willing to pay more for highly targeted advertising.

Twitter dominates the conversation around live TV

The counter-argument is that Twitter's ad model may have less to do with personal targeting than timing and attention. There is a reason the company's signature hashtag appeared in more than 50 percent of Super Bowl ads last year. When it comes to the real-time conversation around massive events like the presidential election or the Oscars, Twitter can sell ads much like a television network, a potentially much more lucrative form of marketing than traditional internet advertising. The upcoming version of Twitter’s app is rumored to have an entire section devoted to the conversation happening around live TV.

Another knock on Twitter's potential, at least when it comes to building a big advertising business, is the brevity of its 140-character messages. While this peculiar restraint has helped to give Twitter its rapid metabolism, it has limited Twitter's options when it comes to video and display advertising, areas where Google and Facebook have found significant revenue.

In response, Twitter has been expanding the amount of media users and advertisers can embed in tweets, allowing images, headlines, and now videos to be placed and played directly in Twitter messages. Vine, the short-form video service Twitter acquired in October of 2012, has been growing steadily. Most importantly, the company has always been very focused on mobile. More than half of its revenue will come from mobile advertising this year, putting it ahead of rivals like LinkedIn or Facebook.

More than half Twitter's revenue comes from mobile

Bears will say that Twitter is entering an increasingly crowded market, with everyone from Tumblr to Instagram looking to build out an advertising business. And it’s true that during the run up to the IPO Twitter has been laser-focused on advertising as its sole business model. But as one of the world's biggest and best sources of real-time chatter, Twitter also has a valuable data stream on its hands. So far, it has licensed this raw stream of breaking news and opinion to companies like Gnip and Datasift, which refine and resell a processed version. Twitter's data appeals to a diverse set of entities: everyone from high frequency traders to the US military. Once it goes public, Twitter may finally have the resources to begin building out this side of its business.

As a company with significant revenue and reported profits, Twitter has built a case for going public. The ultimate question is how investors should value it. The company had been trading at around $9 billion on the private market, with numbers recently rising as high as $14 billion. If Facebook, Zynga, and Groupon are any indication, it will likely price above that for the IPO, as investors value the added transparency and liquidity of the public markets. We’ll have a much clearer picture once its financials become public. Does its business back up a $20 billion valuation, a number that has been tossed around? That depends on which version of Twitter you believe in.