Nov 6, 2022 - Technology

Musk's advertiser push undermined by his own opening moves

Photo illustration of Elon Musk next to the twitter logo

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue

Advertisers are slowing or pausing their Twitter buys as companies grow frustrated with Elon Musk's moves.

Why it matters: Sources have told Axios that Musk wants to make subscriptions a bigger revenue stream for Twitter, but building that business will take time, and for now, advertising remains the way Twitter keeps its lights on.

Driving the news: What began as a few calls for advertising boycotts this week turned into a chorus, driven by activist groups who said they are frustrated with Musk's lack of attention to safety, especially in terms of targeted hate towards marginalized groups.

  • "You can’t come for our money by day, and work to make us unsafe at night," said Color Of Change president Rashad Robinson, who met with Musk earlier this week alongside other groups, including the NAACP.

State of play: Musk has been actively trying to court advertisers, but his efforts so far are being undermined by his actions and tweets, advertisers told Axios.

  • Specifically, some have pointed to Musk's tweet last week, which he's since deleted, linking to a widely discredited website's report of a baseless rumor about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband.
  • Others have expressed frustration with Musk's focus on product development as a solution for hate speech, rather than policy.

Musk met with a group of over 100 of the top advertisers and agencies in the country on Thursday to talk with them about brand safety.

  • A few executives said they were concerned that Musk devoted so much of the meeting, which he joined virtually, to discussing verification and new products, rather than committing to content moderation policies and enforcement.
  • “I did not leave that call feeling 100%,” one marketing executive said.

Musk has said that he's committed to brand safety, and tweeted out an overture to advertisers last week, promising not to let Twitter become a "free-for-all hellscape."

  • But marketers say his actions don't match his words, and until he takes concrete policy steps, they're proceeding with caution.
  • "We do have advertisers who are choosing not to go on record but are quiet quitting to be out of the discourse right now," an agency executive said.

The big picture: Other marketers argue that if Musk was serious about brand safety, he wouldn't have let key leaders on Twitter's advertising team go, including chief customer officer Sarah Personette and chief marketing officer Leslie Berland, and he wouldn't have fired most of Twitter's content moderation staff Friday.

  • "Elon, Great chat yesterday, As you heard overwhelmingly from senior advertisers on the call, the issue concerning us all is content moderation and its impact on BRAND SAFETY/SUITABILITY. You say you’re committed to moderation, but you just laid off 75% of the moderation team!," tweeted Lou Paskalis, a veteran advertising trade group official.
  • Musk on Friday laid off roughly half of Twitter's entire staff, and teams that focus on trust and safety issues were hit the hardest, per The Verge.

Between the lines: On Friday, Musk tried to blame activist groups for a drop in Twitter's revenue.

  • "Twitter has had a massive drop in revenue, due to activist groups pressuring advertisers, even though nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists. Extremely messed up! They’re trying to destroy free speech in America," Musk tweeted.

Yes, but: Data shows advertisers have been slowly dropping off for many months, even before Musk officially closed the deal, likely due to the economy but also possibly because of the uncertainty caused by Musk's takeover.

  • The number of advertisers spending on Twitter went from 3,900 in May to 2,300 in August and most recently. 2,900 in September, according to new data from MediaRadar.

What to watch: Ad agency executives told Axios that in the wake of reports about an uptick of hate speech on the platform, they are advising clients to pause advertising for now.

  • In the future, reviving Donald Trump's banned account could cause more advertisers to pull their dollars.
  • "Trump is the most illustrative of a flashpoint," they said.

The bottom line: It's Musk's behavior, more than activist pressure on its own, that's driving marketers to proceed cautiously with Twitter.

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