The World Cup has always been a boon for Twitter, bringing record traffic and an influx of advertising dollars.
But this time, when the World Soccer Tournament began on Nov. 20, Twitter’s ad revenue in the United States was 80% below internal expectations for that week, three people with knowledge of the numbers said.
At the same time, Twitter was rapidly reducing its revenue projections. The company had previously forecast that it would generate $1.4 billion in the last three months of the year, down from $1.6 billion a year ago due to the global economic slowdown. But as Twitter continued to miss its weekly advertising targets, that figure fell to $1.3 billion and then to $1.1 billion, two people said.
Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, has repeatedly warned that his social media company is facing a difficult financial situation. Interviews with seven former employees and internal documents seen by The New York Times paint a fuller picture of Twitter’s financial struggles.
Many of the company’s problems can be traced to Mr. Musk’s takeover in late October. Since then, advertisers – who provide 90% of Twitter’s revenue – have suspended some spending on the platform, citing concerns about how Mr Musk might change the service. The billionaire, a so-called “free speech absolutist”, reinstated banned accounts and dropped at least one misinformation policy. Hate speech on Twitter has exploded in recent weeks, researchers have found.
At the same time, Mr. Musk alternated between courting advertisers and lambasting them. Last month, he threatened a “thermonuclear name and shame” brands that have stopped spending on Twitter. This week he briefly tussled with Apple, which was on track to spend more than $180 million on Twitter ads this year, three people said.
Twitter’s advertising business got so strained that it started offering brands extra incentives. Some brands only engage in promotions for events, like the Super Bowl, with steep discounts or clauses that allow them to opt out for any reason, according to internal documents and three people familiar with the efforts. Automakers are among the most worried advertisers, with General Motors questioning whether Twitter data would be shared with Mr Musk’s automaker Tesla, three people said.
“There has been no level of trust on our part with Twitter, especially with the whiplash we’ve had over the past four weeks,” said Ellie Bamford, global media manager at R/GA, a creative agency. Last month, IPG, the parent company of R/GA and one of the largest advertising companies in the world, recommended that its clients suspend advertising on Twitter.
Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment.
Even before he made his deal for Twitter, advertisers began to voice their doubts. Twitter had 3,980 advertisers in May, the month after Mr. Musk agreed to buy the company, according to MediaRadar, an ad intelligence firm. In October, it had 2,315 advertisers, the fewest for any month so far.
Advertisers’ confidence in Twitter was further shaken when its sales and advertising team moved after Mr Musk took over. Leslie Berland and JP Maheu, who were responsible for nurturing key relationships with some major brands, left last month. Robin Wheeler, a US advertising executive who quit briefly before staying on, was later fired after Mr Musk asked her to cut employees from the sales team and she refused, two people said.
Dara Nasr, who oversaw Twitter’s European ad operations, also left last month. The company’s ad sales in Europe, the Middle East and Africa were down more than 50% the week of Nov. 21 from the previous week, two people familiar with the numbers said. The Platformer newsletter previously reported Twitter’s numbers for the region.
Mr. Musk also followed through on his threat to call advertisers who suspended spending. On Monday, he posted several barbed tweets about Apple and its chief executive, Tim Cook, noting that the iPhone maker had taken down its advertising on Twitter. Apple, which does not advertise on Instagram or Facebook, had committed more than $150 million to Twitter ads in 2022 and surpassed it with more than $180 million in ad spend, three people said.
But Apple temporarily suspended that after a shooting killed five people at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs on Nov. 19, two people said. Big brands tend to recall advertising in the event of a shooting or disaster so their promotions don’t appear alongside news or tweets about tragedies.
Learn more about Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter
- An established pattern: Fire people. Speaking of bankruptcy. Tell workers to be a “hard core”. Twitter is not the first company to have seen Elon Musk use these tactics.
- Resolving a “misunderstanding”: After Mr Musk accused Apple of threatening to remove Twitter from its App Store, it appears a potential feud between the tech titans has been averted.
- A “war of talents”: Seeing misinformation as a potentially costly liability, several companies are looking to hire ex-Twitter employees with the expertise to control it.
- Unpaid bills: Mr. Musk and his advisers discussed all types of costs on Twitter, asking staff to review, renegotiate and, in some cases, not pay outside vendors at all.
Mr. Musk suggested that Apple’s reduced advertising would lead to censorship on Twitter. “Apple has pretty much stopped advertising on Twitter,” he tweeted. “Do they hate free speech in America?”
On Wednesday, Mr. Cook and Mr. Musk met at Apple’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. Mr Musk later tweeted that they had cleared up a “misunderstanding”. Apple did not respond to requests for comment.
Ms Bamford said Mr Musk’s behavior was beyond pale. “There’s no way to shame someone for advertising in a controversial and dangerous environment,” she said. “Screaming at people is not a plan.”
Other advertisers are concerned that their Twitter advertising data will be shared with Mr. Musk’s other companies. GM, the first brand to announce it had suspended advertising on Twitter in late October, sought assurances that its data would not be shared with Tesla, two people said. He also asked for a way to separate his information from systems that Tesla engineers had access to, they said, given that Mr. Musk had taken Tesla employees to Twitter to navigate the change in ownership.
“It is important to us to ensure that our advertising strategies and data can be safely managed by a competitor-owned platform,” a GM spokesperson said in a statement.
Twitter recently offered some brands additional incentives to place ads on the service, according to an ad agency that received a proposal from the company. The more money spent on the platform, the more Twitter will amplify those ads, according to the proposal, which was seen by The Times.
Morning Brew, a business newsletter site, reported earlier on the incentives.
Twitter’s ad sales teams are now trying to confirm Super Bowl engagements in February. PepsiCo, whose ad agency has recommended customers suspend advertising on the platform, has asked for the ability to opt out of advertising at any time, a person familiar with the negotiations said. Pepsi did not respond to a request for comment.