What's next for Twitter: Salesforce or the abyss?

Twitter: A whole new way to watch the NFL
Twitter: A whole new way to watch the NFL

Would you rather see Twitter stay independent or get bought by a company that calls itself a "customer success platform?"

This suddenly appears to be the most likely choice facing the ailing social network, and the answer to the question may simply be: damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Twitter (TWTR) stock surged on rumors that Google (GOOGL), Disney (DIS) and Salesforce (CRM) were interested in an acquisition, with the potential for others like Apple (AAPL) to sniff around.

But on Thursday, the stock plunged nearly 20% following a report from Re/code that Google, Disney and Apple aren't planning to bid for Twitter. A separate report from CNBC said other bidders are "taking a look," but remained vague.

Reps for Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

That leaves Salesforce as the clearest bidder. The corporate pairing has caused a fair amount of hand wringing among tech analysts, Salesforce investors and Twitter fans.

"Dear God, Please don't let Salesforce buy Twitter. Amen," one user posted on Twitter Thursday.

Twitter's cultural impact has arguably never been greater, as evidenced by its prominent role in the U.S. presidential election, but its viability as a standalone business has never seemed more precarious.

Investors aren't exactly hot on the acquisition either. Salesforce's stock fell this week on concerns about a pricey deal for an unprofitable company with no growth.

Related: #Oops! Twitter plunges as takeover hopes fade

Under CEO Marc Benioff, Salesforce has made a number of acquisitions to provide additional software tools and data that help businesses and marketers manage relationships with customers. Twitter would almost certainly be the largest, with a price tag of at least $15 billion, or about a third of Salesforce's market cap.

Buying Twitter would give Salesforce access to valuable data on more than 300 million users, months after Salesforce lost out on its bid to buy LinkedIn. An acquisition would also give Salesforce control of a social platform that is already a powerful tool for brands to market themselves and field customer feedback.

For Twitter, however, it's unclear if having Salesforce as an owner solves any of its core problems.

Unlike Disney, Salesforce isn't particularly well suited to build up Twitter's streaming entertainment and news offerings. Unlike Google or Apple, Salesforce may not have the technical chops to build innovative features and address harassment. And unlike any of these companies, Salesforce doesn't have a track record of being profitable.

"You can make the case for Salesforce to acquire them, but ultimately it boils down to how are they even going to pay for it, and are they the company that can extract the most value," says James Cakmak, an analyst with Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co. "I just don't see it."

twitter salesforce

After Salesforce stock took a hit from the deal rumors, Benioff was careful to manage expectations about an acquisition.

"The reality is we have to look at everything. We are going to pass on most things," Benioff said in an interview on CNBC Wednesday.

If Salesforce passes on buying Twitter, or simply can't afford to make a bid compelling enough to persuade Twitter's board, the social network may still find itself in a dire situation.

"If that is the case, then I think Twitter will likely have to remain independent until a more reasonable valuation is available," says Cakmak.

Translation: If Twitter doesn't sell after the latest flurry of rumors, its stock will continue to nosedive as investors lose hope of an easy exit. Once Twitter gets cheap enough, it's possible suitors may take another stab at buying the company.

Any significant stock decline would likely hit the morale of employees as Twitter leans heavily on stock-based compensation to retain talent.

Many inside the company have either been looking for jobs elsewhere, or are waiting for their stock options to vest with the hope of a better financial return from an acquisition, according to interviews with former employees.

Related: Google brings its moonshots back to earth

Even if employees don't flee at once, many could be pushed out. Twitter might be forced to cut costs to show investors it can improve profits if it can't improve user numbers or sales growth. Twitter laid off 8% of its staff last year, but still has 3,860 employees globally, according to its website.

Jack Dorsey, Twitter's cofounder, has struggled to reignite growth in the year since taking over as permanent CEO.

In the absence of clear progress toward a turnaround, Twitter's ailing stock has only shown signs of life for one reason this year: the acquisition rumors.

It started with talk of News Corp. buying up Twitter in January and continued with chatter that venture capitalist Marc Andreessen or former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer might make a bid. No dice. Inevitably the stock would fall as investors realized there was no quick solution for Twitter's woes.

"The whole company always wished it had never gone public, to be honest," the former Twitter employee says. Ryan Sarver, a former Twitter exec, echoed that sentiment in a tweet on Wednesday. "Hope [Twitter] goes to a good home. Still so much potential but needs to go private to be fixed."

CNNMoney Sponsors