Twitter Canada head Melissa Barnes on Q1 numbers, gender equity and its new audience metric

It took just one solid earnings report for Twitter to recapture some of its mojo. While the recent narrative had focused on its stagnant user numbers and continued issues with harassment and user safety, the social media platform’s Q1 report on Tuesday was met with enthusiasm from the street, which pushed its stock price up to levels not seen since last July.

Twitter’s first-quarter advertising revenue rose 18% to US$679 million (total revenue was US$787 million), marking its fifth straight quarter of growth. U.S. advertising revenues were a highlight, increasing 26% to US$363 million.

In a letter to shareholders, Twitter noted strong growth in video ad formats, including its video website card and in-stream pre-roll. Globally, it saw a 23% increase in total engagements, which it attributes to higher ad impressions and improved click-through rates.

The Message caught up with Melissa Barnes, (pictured), head of Canada and Latin America, during a recent stop in Toronto, for a wide-ranging conversation that definitely exceeds the social network’s 280-character limit.

On the quarterly results, and Canada’s place in its operations

Barnes partly attributes Q1’s strong revenue growth to the company’s efforts around brand and user safety, including a continuing crackdown on hate speech, fake accounts and other bad actors.

“We’re building confidence in the platform and how we’re doing business,” she says. “Our point of view has been to be as transparent with our partners as possible. At the same time, we have taken a lot of steps to make sure we’re protecting users.”

While the company does not provide a market-by-market revenue breakdown, Barnes says the company has identified Canada as a key rising market. “We’re continuing to see this market grow, and as we look at momentum this is one of the markets we’ve identified as the next generation of markets we expect to go to the next level,” she says.

Canada has also become something of a testing ground for Twitter, says Barnes. “You have a market that has great proximity to the U.S., with the same language, but it’s size is an advantage to use it to test and innovate,” she says. “This can be a lab, for all intents and purposes. If we do something great here, it can potentially scale to many.”

On the shift away from reporting monthly active users

The first quarter report was the last in which Twitter will report monthly active users (MAUs). Instead, its future earnings reports will state audiences using a metric it calls “monetizable daily active users,” or mDAUs.

Twitter had 330 million MAUs in the first-quarter report, a year-over-year decrease of 6 million (but a quarter-over-quarter increase of 9 million), while the average international mDAU was 105 million—a 12% increase from 2017 and a 6% increase from the prior quarter.

The move has been greeted with a degree of skepticism, with one analyst, Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter, calling it a “made up metric” that glosses over the fact that Twitter’s MAU growth is stagnant.

Barnes argues that the adoption of mDAU reflects the company’s efforts to increase its number of daily active users, which she says is a more important metric for advertisers.

“When they’re thinking about planning campaigns, they’re trying to understand how to target the right audience at the right moment in time with the right content,” she says. “What we’re showing them with mDAUs is ‘Here’s the audience you can monetize against,'” she says. “If you look at this from a hard numbers perspective, we’re giving you smaller numbers.

“Advertisers care about the people they can put advertising against—that’s what matters,” she says.

On women in media and tech

Barnes was in Toronto for the Canadian Media Directors’ Council‘s annual summit, where she was scheduled to join Secret Code’s Mara Lecocq, Spotify’s Khartoon Weiss and Wave Maker’s Kristie Painting for a panel discussion entitled “#WeAreTheFuture. Women transforming media & tech.”

There were just 25 female CEOs on the most recent Fortune 500 list, but Barnes says that diversity and inclusion is one of Twitter’s key priorities. One of its informal policies, for example, is that male executives won’t appear on any industry panel that isn’t gender-balanced.

“[Gender equality] is something we talk about all the time at the executive level [and] there’s a lot of focus on this,” says Barnes. “But while I appreciate the fact we’re talking about women, I think we have to talk about diversity.”

The issue of diversity and representation within Twitter is a particularly important one, since women and people of colour face a disproportionate amount of abuse on the platform. CEO Jack Dorsey recently acknowledged that representation within Twitter will be an important factor in addressing that problem. “We can’t build a business that’s successful unless we have a diversity of perspective inside our walls that actually feel these issues every day,” he said at TED2019 last week.

According to Twitter’s latest inclusion and diversity report, 40.2% of employees within its U.S. operations were women, while just 4.5% were black and 3.9% were latinx. Of its total new hires in 2018, 45.7% were women, 7.4% were black and 4.9% were latinx. More than one-third (35.8%) of its leadership team is female, while 4.7% were black and 2.7% were latinx.

One noticeable area of concern for all companies, says Barnes, is the lack of women and minorities in middle management roles. “They’re not being teed-up for the projects or opportunities that allow them to make a name for themselves, and make people think of them when they’re thinking about who should take that next big role,” she says. “That’s something I’m personally looking at.

“Those people exist—it’s giving them the opportunities that will allow them to grow and prove themselves.”

On its growing number of video content deals

Twitter has announced a steady stream of video content deals over the past 12 months, including partnerships with major media entities including Walt Disney Co. and NBCUniversal.

Barnes says that one of Twitter’s key strategies is to become an important destination for live moments that bring users together. “Jack [Dorsey] talks about this in an eloquent way: Opening Twitter should be like opening up a window on the world you’re interested in,” she says. “Video is a very important part of that.”

She describes live video as “an element” of Twitter’s overall video strategy, and one that it will continue to iterate from an advertising perspective. “We see brands want to be part of those moments,” she says. “There’s a lot of live events and moments that can be really great for brands.”

Barnes says that Twitter has also become a growing channel of choice for product launches, with companies including Heinz, Sonos and Samsung all conducing product launches via the platform.

“You’re serving video and highlights and really great moments that everyone is rallying around, but it’s intuitive to the experience,” says Barnes. “As you look at video consumption trends, we would be crazy not to invest in our own product strategy there.”

But live video has also become an important topic in discussions about brand safety and reducing the amount of toxic content distributed through social media channels.

On the WFA’s stern warning about social media

In March, the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) issued a call for marketers to hold the global social media giants more accountable for allowing the dissemination of dangerous and hateful content on their platforms. That call came just days after a terrorist live-streamed his shooting attack on two New Zealand mosques.

While much of the WFA’s ire was directed towards platforms like Instagram and Facebook, Twitter is no stranger to controversy. It has been repeatedly called out for allowing hate speech to flourish.

Barnes says that the company is actively working to stamp out hate on the platform through the use of artificial intelligence rather than waiting for users to file a complaint. In a recent blog post, Twitter said that technology applications have allowed 38% of abusive content to be uncovered proactively for human review, rather than relying on reports.

It also said that it suspended 100,000 accounts for creating new accounts after a suspension between January and March of this year, a 45% increase from the same time last year.

Twitter is working hard to assuage advertisers’ fears around brand safety, says Barnes. “It’s something we’ve been having conversations with advertisers about for years now… Brand safety is a huge priority for any advertiser we’re working with.”

Barnes says that Twitter has also given advertisers considerable control over where their ads run, including the ability to blacklist certain partners, content or keywords.

It is also addressing the issue of fake traffic, another area that has bedeviled the internet in recent years. More than  99% of the ads served on Twitter are seen by actual people, says Barnes. “There’s a lot of stuff we look at in terms of making sure we’re trying to honour what advertisers are looking for when they look at where they’re going to put their stories.”

(This article was updated to correct an error listing Melissa Barnes as managing director of Twitter Canada. That role is held by Paul Burns).


Chris Powell