Twitter’s revelation last week that it misreported user metrics for nearly three years has been overshadowed by concerns over the social media company’s future under Elon Musk, according to agency execs. But agencies want answers, and they are disappointed with Twitter’s response so far.
“The metrics revelation is getting buried under the rest of Twitter's news that has happened in the past week,” said Sadie Miller, SVP of social partnerships and strategy at Reprise. “I do think strongly if this happened a month ago, it would be a much bigger deal.”
Amid a flurry of drama around Musk’s plans for the platform, Twitter disclosed that it overstated its user numbers from the first quarter of 2019 to the fourth quarter of 2021 in its Q1 financial report last week.
The miscount was caused by a feature introduced in March 2019 that allows users to link separate accounts together in order to more conveniently toggle between them. From then until the end of 2021, Twitter was counting all linked accounts as separate monetizable daily active users (mDAU).
Twitter published its corrected mDAU values for the two-year period vs. its previously reported metrics, showing it overstated in a range of 300,000 users up to 1.9 million users.
These metrics are used for media planning and investment strategy, and could have resulted in advertisers overinvesting in Twitter during the period.
“Knowing that the numbers were, in some areas, significantly lower doesn’t affect us in terms of performance, but if not for the news this week would have probably drastically impacted future planning and how we looked at the platform,” Miller told Campaign US.
According to sources, Twitter employees have brushed off the reporting error, pointing out that the overstatement equated to less than 1% of global mDAUs.
But Miller believes the numbers “are significant” from an advertiser perspective, since it could have impacted the recommendations that agencies made to their clients.
In such a scenario, agencies expect formal communications from the social media platform with a detailed explanation of the issue and how it occurred. They want assurances of how and when it was fixed, and what will happen moving forward.
Advertisers and their agencies have “come to expect” that social media platforms will misreport numbers from time to time, according to Benjamin Arnold, the U.S. CEO of We Are Social.
But one week since Twitter revealed the error, the platform has yet to provide any concrete explanation for its overinflated metrics to agency partners that Campaign US spoke with. “I feel like they are just trying to get their ducks in a row before externally responding and communicating on this,” said Arnold.
Instead, agencies have received cookie-cutter statements assuring them that the platform is operating “business as usual.”
But that doesn’t mean Twitter isn’t communicating with agencies at all. A large digital agency that spoke with Campaign US anonymously said the only official communications it has received from Twitter in the past two weeks have been focused on reassuring partners over the impact of its sale to Musk, which was approved on April 25.
The note, received following the publication of Twitter’s Q1 report, read: “The Twitter board just announced that they will accept Elon Musk's offer to purchase the company. The board undertook a thoughtful, comprehensive and deliberate process to review the proposal and believe it is the best path forward for Twitter stockholders. While the board has signed the deal, the actual process could take many quarters or even longer for the deal to close. In the meantime, two things we want to emphasize. One, we are operating business as usual. We remain focused and committed to delivering priority solutions in full-funnel measurement, shopping and brand safety. And two, your account servicing remains unchanged. Anything you need, we are here to support.”
There was no mention of the mDAU issue, despite it being revealed hours earlier.
It was also business as usual during Twitter’s NewFront presentation to advertisers on Wednesday night, beyond a brief allusion to the Musk sale. “It’s been a quiet month at Twitter. Not much going on lately,” VP of global client solutions JP Maheu said as he kicked off the presentation.
Reprise’s Miller said the lack of accountability from Twitter is “disappointing” and expressed concerns over how long the platform had known about the metrics issue.
“In a growing space like social, you are not a stranger to understanding there are glitches and new tech and kinks that need to be worked out, but the length of time a partner has known this and not looped in advertisers is really critical and can damage that relationship. We prefer to be informed as soon as possible,” Miller said. “It sounds like with this there was some data they sat on for a while. That’s not a great look and it is frankly a bit disappointing from a partner we typically have a strong relationship with.”
Twitter has not provided Campaign US with information about when it learned of the error, and declined a request for comment.
Other social media platforms have faced criticism in the past for failing to alert advertisers of similar issues. Meta Platforms’ Facebook is facing an ongoing class-action lawsuit for inflating its reach metrics to advertisers. Filed in 2018, the suit alleges that Facebook executives knowingly deceived advertisers by failing to act on the error after becoming aware of it.
One agency executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Twitter’s reporting error calls into question the sophistication of its ad tools: “What we would want from Twitter is accountability and assurance that they have this under control, and a game plan. More than anything, it’s sloppy. It’s such a basic screw up that it leaves us wondering, what else could be wrong? Do you guys have your act together?”
Agency executives told Campaign US that Twitter is usually quick to mitigate concerns about its ad tools, and recognized that the company is dealing with an unprecedented situation.
“In another time, I think [the mDAU issue] would be a bigger deal and something they would be trying to get ahead of. But communications have been much more scattered and inconsistent than in the past. You get that sense that [Twitter employees] are very shellshocked,” said the anonymous executive.
Miller added: “I think Twitter [employees] are feeling a bit overwhelmed trying to navigate it all because they don't know much more than we do.”
Advertisers are overwhelmed too, according to the agency execs. They are concerned about a potential employee exodus at Twitter, based on early responses to Musk’s takeover, what Musk’s “free speech absolutist” stance will mean for brand safety, and whether they will lose oversight into key metrics and standards when Twitter becomes a private company.
The metrics issue has been brought up by advertisers “but it hasn't created waves,” said We Are Social’s Arnold, while brands are preoccupied with the higher-level impact of Twitter’s future direction.
“If the metrics story gets traction, I think that will add fuel to the fire for some of our clients who are already feeling uneasy,” said Miller.
For now, agencies are advising clients to stay the course with their Twitter campaigns.
“Our approach is to guide our clients on not reacting immediately or in a knee jerk way to news without understanding the actual implications and impacts on advertising,” Miller said, adding that the agency would respond much more urgently to an issue regarding brand safety. “For now our advice is to stay the course until we know any different.”
“Right now, things are status quo,” the anonymous exec added. “The second Elon is in control and there is any news of previously banned accounts coming back, that will be a line for brands. There’s no way big advertisers will be active with their ads if that kicks off.”
We Are Social has recommended that clients ramp up their use of social listening to monitor fluctuating user numbers and conversations on Twitter more closely.
“If there's more conversation and more uncertainty, you've got to do more social listening,” Arnold said.