Tech billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have been joking about setting up a cage match. In the business world, the fight has already begun.
Less than 24 hours after Mr Zuckerberg launched his alternative to Twitter, Threads, it had already claimed some 30 million sign-ups – lending it credibility as a serious contender in the world of social media.
That’s still a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of Twitter users.
But analysts think it’s a sign that Mr Zuckerberg’s Meta has a good shot at wooing some of its gigantic 3 billion-plus users on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp to the new offering – and bringing advertisers with them.
After all, Mr Zuckerberg, whose Meta made more than $117bn in sales last year, has a monster track record when it comes to selling adverts – and none of the apparent qualms of Mr Musk, who has disdained advertising at his electric car company, Tesla, and been looking for alternative ways to fund Twitter.
Mr Zuckerberg said there would be no ads on Threads initially, giving the company time to fine-tune the app, which allows users to scroll endlessly through text-based posts.
“Our approach will be the same as all our other products: make the product work well first, then see if we can get it on a clear path to 1 billion people, and only then think about monetization at that point,” he wrote.
But eventually, Threads adverts could add 1% to 5% to Meta’s overall revenue, generating more than $6bn in the most optimistic scenario, Justin Patterson, equity research analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets wrote in a note.
That’s not huge. But it’s also not nothing, especially as the company continues to look for ways to combat the hit to ad sales sparked by stricter privacy rules from Apple.
And it is well within striking distance of Twitter, which generated $4.5bn in ad revenue in 2021, before Mr Musk’s takeover sparked upheaval.
Will users stay?
Whether that money materialises will depend on what Threads becomes, if anything, in the weeks and months ahead.
Mr Musk was ready on Thursday with the counter-punch, reportedly threatening legal action against Meta for stealing trade secrets.
But frustration with Twitter has left plenty of people hungry for an alternative; and Meta’s promise of a “saner, kinder place” than Twitter “supercharged” early sign-ups, Insider Intelligence analyst Jasmine Enberg said.
“Posting. With optimism,” quipped Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker, one of the celebrities jumping into the fray alongside Shakira, Oprah and Khloe Kardashian.
Success will depend on winning over Twitter’s power users or people who never signed up for the app in the first place – no sure bet, analysts said.
Though the fashion and lifestyle content that is the bread-and-butter of Instagram clearly holds appeal for advertisers, it is not clear the world needs another platform to consume it.
Mr Zuckerberg also has a complicated relationship with news, one of Twitter’s main functions.
He has said surveys show users want less of it on the platforms he runs and in Canada, his company is preparing to block local reporting, rather than pay news providers there for their content.
“News hounds and avid Twitter loyalists aren’t likely to defect to Twitter, and Meta will need to keep Threads interesting to maintain the momentum once the novelty wears off,” Ms Enberg said, adding that Mr Zuckerberg – who has been skewered before for creating copycat products – has “struggled” with innovation.
Advertisers will also be looking for confidence that they are not spending money on a platform exposing them to risks tied to issues like misinformation and privacy.
Under Mr Musk, Twitter, which had struggled to be profitable, has alienated advertisers with abrupt changes to how the site moderates content and more recently, a new limit on how many posts audiences can see.
Analysts say Meta has already been one of the beneficiaries from Twitter losing business.
But Mr Zuckerberg is not coming to the table with a clean record either.
His company has clashed with marketers for years over the transparency and accuracy of its data, while its handling of user data and misinformation has drawn widespread criticism.
“Advertisers want a clean … well-lit environment where content is moderated on the terms and conditions agreed to, on a consistent basis,” said marketing veteran Lou Paskalis, chief executive of AJL Advisory. “Overall right now social media is a bit of a dumpster fire.”
Meta shares popped 4% on Wednesday ahead of the launch – a sign of investor confidence that Mr Zuckerberg has the ability to make it work, despite flops like Facebook Dating.
But replicating the way that news breaks on Twitter will be difficult, Mr Paskalis said, leaving room for both platforms to exist.
Or, he suggested, the presence of a serious threat could prove a “wake-up call” for Mr Musk.
“One of the keys will be how long will Threads eschew advertising,” Mr Paskalis said. “Whatever that period of time is, that’s the period of time that Twitter has to right that ship.”