Advertising Sales Plummet Even as Social Media Usage Soars

Despite growing usage of social media platforms during the coronavirus pandemic, the platforms’ ad businesses are plummeting. Twitter, for example, saw its daily usage skyrocket 23 percent this year, but its revenue may have dropped as much as 20 percent in March. As businesses have slowed down or shuttered, marketers are decreasing or even stopping advertising, which is the core support of media companies. In difficult economic times, advertising spending on the media sector is often the first to be cut.

Vox reports that even as “the coronavirus pandemic has made Twitter more valuable than ever to its users …. [its] ad business … is in free fall.” Twitter already told investors that “it no longer believed in the projections it had provided to them in early February,” which led Wall Street to estimate a 20 percent drop in revenue.

Twitter’s situation is an “official warning to the rest of the industry about how quickly things have deteriorated,” says Vox. Another media outlet that sent out its own warning is The New York Times, which reported that its ad revenue was going to decrease in “the mid-teens” in Q1 2020, “though its subscription business seemed okay.”

“The implication is that marketers are cutting spend across the board,” RBC Capital Markets analyst Mark Mahaney wrote in a research report. He suggested examining another datapoint with Las Vegas hotels. “We’re seeing zero paid ads,” he said. “Can’t recall ever seeing that.”

Facebook has not yet released “a formal note to Wall Street,” but has noted that, although its seeing “increased engagement” with its messaging services in particular, it doesn’t “monetize many of the services where we’re seeing increased engagement, and we’ve seen a weakening in our ads business in countries taking aggressive actions to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

Vox extrapolates that, “it’s quite likely that both Alphabet and Facebook will see material drops in their ad businesses, in part because of the nature of the way their ad businesses are built” — it’s easy to buy ads and easy to stop buying them.

“Given the sheer size of digital ad spending in today’s marketplace (i.e., more than 50 percent of all ad spend is now digital), we would expect other digital platforms to see significant deceleration in ad revenues in the coming months,” said MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson. But the Big Tech companies like Google and Facebook “are likely to come out of the pandemic in much better shape than the rest of the media business, due to their enormous size.”

Traditional media, however, which has already been on a downward trajectory, is “in real trouble,” and “local news outlets, which were already under enormous pressure, may not make it out at all.” Big TV networks, which ink commitments from advertisers for several months in advance, are a bit more protected but “certainly aren’t shielded.”

Going forward, says Vox, “we will see more reasons for advertisers not to spend money,” on the postponed Tokyo Olympics and Democratic and Republican conventions as well as the presidential campaign.