As Twitter embarked on its historic IPO last November, people had two big concerns about the company: One, that it wasn’t profitable; and two, that it wasn’t growing its user base fast enough. In fact, since the fourth quarter of 2012, active user growth has steadily decelerated.
The two criticisms are closely intertwined. As Henry Blodget noted on the eve of the IPO, Twitter can grow its revenue without robust user growth, but not for long:
Twitter grew its user base first and is now following up with revenue. The company has enough users — 230 million last quarter — that it will likely be able to grow its revenue at a very rapid rate for another couple of years. After that, though, the future revenue growth potential will depend on the company’s ability to make its service go mainstream.
That’s why all eyes will be on Twitter’s user growth metrics when it releases its first quarterly statement as a public company this Wednesday. In the meantime, however, the numbers from last night’s Super Bowl may not bode well for Twitter’s growth prospects.
During the telecast, 24.9 million tweets were sent about the Super Bowl, according to Twitter’s data team. That’s only a 3 percent increase over the 24.1 million tweets sent during last year’s game.
Of course there are a couple important external factors that affected the not-so-super tweet count. First, the television ratings for this year’s Super Bowl were down slightly from last year’s match, which set a record for households watching the game. That shouldn’t surprise anybody: by the opening touchdown kickoff return of the 2nd half, which put Seattle up on Denver 29-0, the game ceased to be competitive.
Second, last year’s blackout caused a thirty-minute delay giving viewers more time to tap tiny witticisms into Twitter. In fact more tweets were sent per minute during the blackout than at any other point during the event.
(If I may, I’d like to also posit a completely unscientific theory called “The Beyonce effect.” If Beyonce performs at half-time like she did last year, and like she should every year, everything about the game will be elevated, including the tweet count).
So was last night a super aberration or part of a larger trend? Here’s a chart we made of the tweet counts for four of the biggest television events of 2014 so far, as compared to the tweet counts in 2012 and 2013.
Across the board, there are huge increases between 2012 and 2013, but only very small bumps leading into 2014 for the Grammys and the Super Bowl. Tweeting during the Golden Globes even went down this year, which is bad news considering viewership was higher in 2014 than it had been in 10 years.
The only event that saw a noteworthy bump in percentage points this year was the State of the Union address, up to 1.7 million tweets over last year’s 1.36 million tweets. Interestingly, Obama’s 2014 address drew the lowest ratings for a State of the Union speech since 2000. One possible explanation for the discrepancy is that, unlike the other three events, the State of the Union can be streamed by anybody online for free. This also suggests that Twitter’s standing as a place to share and discuss serious news is in no danger of falling.
Television is poised to be a big revenue-driver for Twitter as the company continues to strike cross-platform promotion partnerships with major networks. Twitter even inked a deal with cable provider Comcast that turns the social network itself into a TV-watching service.
Should partners and shareholders be worried that these numbers have begun to plateau? From a revenue perspective, it may not matter in the short term because Twitter is only now beginning to monetize this conversation. But if usage continues to even out during live television events, or even worse, if Twitter loses many of these “second screen” users to Facebook as some predict, it could seriously hinder the company on its road to profitability.