When Terry Semel backed out of the $1 billion bid for Facebook in 2006, a characteristic move for the finicky former Yahoo! CEO, no one could have predicted that the social network would be valued at nearly $100 billion in 2012, and boast 845 million monthly active users. The social network’s $5 billion Initial Public Offering (IPO) this year excited the world, but is the feeding frenzy justified? There are valid concerns from users and advertisers that may affect the future of the social network and its financial performance.
Despite high user engagement, Facebook was explicit in its prospectus that growth of ad revenue, the main source of the company’s overall revenue, was declining. Specifically, revenue growth slowed from 100% to 55% in the fourth quarter of 2011, and although impressive, the growth is far from that of Google at the same stage of development. One of the main reasons for the decrease is the rising number of active users on its mobile platform, which does not serve ads. Over 425 million monthly active users access the social networking site via their smartphones, and Facebook does not have a plan in place to serve this fast-growing segment. To hope that within the year Facebook will suddenly deliver a business model that monetizes its vast, heterogeneous user base is optimistic at best.
As a public company, Facebook may now be pressured to appease its new shareholders by focusing on ad sales, which have been historically hampered by poor return on investment (ROI) tracking and privacy issues. As early as February 29, 2012, Facebook will roll out new ad size requirements (down from 135 to 90 characters) that will allow it to squeeze more ads into user pages (up from 6 to 7). However, it is yet unclear whether more ads and smaller ad size will allow advertisers to improve ROI instead of diluting user News Feeds. A Wall Street Journal article titled “Advertisers’ Free Ride May End on Facebook” calls attention to a potential end to the free, social advertising on Facebook, soon to be replaced by “Sponsored Stories.”
For budding Wharton entrepreneurs, such Anastasia Roumelioti and George Georgiopoulos, who will be launching a Facebook betting game app called Betillion (a Bet.Tra.de property) in several weeks, the new changes and post-IPO uncertainty present new challenges. With the average ad price growing 18% in the last year, as per Facebook’s regulatory filing, advertisers are hesitant to commit more money without better performance tracking tools.
With over 2.7 billion likes and comments per day, 250 million photos uploaded per day, and over 100 billion friendships, Facebook is a clear leader among social networking sites. However, its current and future value to shareholders may be inflated as its ambiguous business model, patent litigation woes, and regulatory investigations will continue to affect the company in unpredictable ways. Caveat emptor!