By Laharee Chatterjee
(Reuters) - Kevin Kleinman, a trader at Watchhimtrade.com, listens to music on Pandora every morning as he executes trades worth millions of dollars. But he will not bet a dime on the music streaming company.
Once a Wall-Street darling, Pandora Media Inc <P.N> has struggled as subscribers spend less time on the company's app, advertising revenue growth declines and investors worry over a management shakeup that saw co-founder Tim Westergren step down as chief executive.
Pandora, the largest streaming music provider in the United States, is still a compelling asset with more than 73 million active monthly users and because its stock is valued cheaply.
But shareholders and analysts say the company needs to immediately invest in a new ad platform to woo local advertisers and stay relevant in the face of stiffer competition from Spotify and Apple Music, which are grabbing listeners and advertisers with their user-friendly interfaces and exclusive contracts with popular artists such as Taylor Swift.
New Chief Executive Officer Roger Lynch admitted on the company's earnings call last month that advertisers were shying away because its ad platform had gaps that made it hard for advertisers to transact with Pandora, but he did not lay out a detailed plan on how he planned to tackle the problem. He said Pandora will spend more to improve its existing ad platform.
"At the very top level, I think the company has clearly misexecuted," said William Graves, chief investment officer at Boardman Bay Capital Management, which holds 315,500 shares of the company as of Sept. 30.
Still, Graves says Pandora is a good investment because of its strong cash position, big customer base, and the possibility of expanding its subscriber base outside the United States.
While Lynch may have been evasive on the call last month, a source told Reuters that the company is likely to buy an advertising technology firm within the next two months.
The source, an investor in Pandora who declined to be identified, said they spoke to the company's chief financial officer after the earnings call and the executive strongly hinted that Pandora was going to buy, rather than build out its ad technology.
Pandora's pricing is its best feature.
It offers three services: a free, ad-supported one; Pandora Plus, which is an ad-free subscription at $4.99 per month that allows subscribers to replay tracks; and Pandora Premium that costs $9.99 per month and supports a search-and-play feature and customizable playlists.
Watchhimtrade.com's Kleinman said the cheap subscription rate is the only reason he listens to Pandora.
Kleinman, 27, instead has placed bets in the online music industry through his holding in Apple Inc <AAPL.O>.
Pandora's shares have lost nearly two-thirds of their value this year and not even a cash infusion of $480 million from Sirius XM Holdings Inc <SIRI.O> in June has been able to arrest the stock's decline.
The forward 12-month median price target on Pandora's stock has dropped from $11 to $8 in the past two months, according to Thomson Reuters data, but that is still a 66 percent premium to the stock's close on Wednesday.
Apart from music companies, Pandora also competes with Alphabet Inc's Google <GOOGL.O> for ad dollars.
Like Google, Pandora allows advertisers to bid for ad space in real time, but analysts said the company's platform needs to give customers more insight and feedback about how effective their ad campaigns are.
"One of the reasons (Google and Facebook) are doing so well ... is because they have a very clear ROI (return on investment) proposition to advertisers," Raymond James analyst Justin Patterson said.
"If Pandora can provide some transparency around that, then it will meaningfully benefit their monetization."
Ad revenue, which accounted for 73 percent of Pandora's total revenue in the latest quarter, rose just 1 percent, compared with 7.5 percent growth a year earlier.
Meanwhile, costs to license music jumped 17 percent in the same period, and was nearly three-quarters of total ad revenue.
In contrast, Google <GOOGL.O> spent less than a quarter of its revenue to bring traffic to its websites in the latest quarter.
A way to get more local advertisers to Pandora's platform would be to offer 'self-serve' advertising that will allow advertisers to place ads without paying an intermediary, investors and analysts said.
"Local and medium-sized business are exactly what would be our target clients because they usually prefer a simpler offering to execute themselves so that's definitely part of our plan," said Chris Record, senior vice president of Pandora's revenue operations.
(Reporting by Laharee Chatterjee in Bengaluru; Writing by Sayantani Ghosh; Editing by Bernard Orr)