Don't Buy Twitter Shares Because of Trump

By Evan Niu, CFA Markets Fool.com

Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) received an interesting analyst upgrade yesterday, which was largely predicated on President Donald Trump's affinity for using the microblogging service. The Tweeter-in-Chief has spurred a flurry of engagement among users, which had the potential to help drive ad revenue and other parts of the business. Yet, here we are -- just a day later -- and the company has released fourth-quarter earnings which failed to impress. Management did specifically comment on Trump's impact on the service, however.

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Here's CFO Anthony Noto discussing Trump:

On your first question, what I would say is that the President's use of Twitter has broadened the awareness of how the platform can be used, and it shows the power of Twitter. When he tweets, it sparks conversation and discussion. So at a macro level, discussion on the platform really helps us be the best at showing what's happening in the world and where discussion strengthens our key differentiators and comprehensive and fast.

...

It'd be very hard for an event or a single person to drive sustained growth in impressions growth. All of that said, having the world's leaders on our platform talking about global issues, people being passionately expressing their points of view, that's all positive for Twitter, and that's what we're focused on.

Here, Twitter is attempting to distinguish between causal growth and coincident growth, and it believes that product changes and marketing were the primary drivers of user growth.

Image source: Getty Images.

Show me the money

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Beyond management's comments on the Trump effect, the poor results show that all that engagement isn't translating into either user growth or higher ad sales.

Monthly active users (MAUs) within the U.S. were flat sequentially at 67 million. Daily active users (DAUs) were up 11% year over year in the fourth quarter, but the company still won't disclose its DAU figures in absolute terms. That doesn't inspire much confidence, since it suggests that Twitter is hiding something.

Advertising revenue also fell year over year for the first time ever, which came in at $638 million. That's a fairly minor decline from the $641 million in ad sales from a year ago, but it appears that Trump-related engagement is not translating into higher ad sales. More specifically, ad sales within the U.S. were down 7% to $382 million, which was mostly offset by international growth.

Part of the challenge is that while Trump's tweets get a lot of attention, a lot of the time that content gets distributed outside of Twitter's core platform (such as being quoted or embedded by media outlets), where Twitter cannot monetize those views. Noto characterized this as a "competitive advantage" since it allows Twitter to be a critical tool in breaking real-time news, and that in turn brings users in (or back to the platform) over time.

Trump may be driving some engagement upside, but he's not driving financial upside.

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Evan Niu, CFA has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Twitter. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.