The headlines about Facebook’s IPO – along with questions about its business model – are now officially cringeworthy. It’s an ongoing, rolling study in how society digests important news about our industry, and it’s far from played out. But we seem at an interesting tipping point in perception, and now seemed a good time to weigh in with a few words on the subject.
Prior to Facebook’s IPO, I drafted a post about its core business model (targeted display advertising), but decided not to publish it. The main thrust of my post is below, but I want to explain why I didn’t post right away, and provide you all with something of a “tick tock” of what’s happened over the past few days.
The truth is, I didn’t post last week because I didn’t feel like piling on to what was becoming a media frenzy. Less than 24 hours before the biggest Internet IPO in history, the negative stories questioning Facebook’s core revenue model were coming fast and furious. My piece wasn’t negative, per se, its intention was to be thoughtful. And in the face of a media scrum, I often pull back until the dust settles. (There’s a media business in there somewhere, but I digress).
I figured I’d wait till Monday. Things would have settled down by then…
Well, that didn’t happen. Compared to Google’s IPO, which was controversial for very different reasons (they ran a “modified auction,” remember?), the Facebook IPO is quickly becoming the biggest story in tech so far this year. And unfortunately for the good people at Facebook, it’s not a positive one.
The starting gun of Facebook’s IPO woes was the news that GM planned to pull its $10 million spend - but would continue to invest around $30 million in maintaining its Facebook “presence.” Interestingly, that $30 million was not going to Facebook, but rather to GM’s agency and other partners. I’m not sure how that $30 million is spent – that’s a lot of cheddar to have a presence anywhere (you could build about 15 Instagrams with that kind of money, for example). But most have speculated it goes to staffing social media experts and working with companies like Buddy Media, buying “likes” through third party ad networks, and maintaining a burgeoning amount of content to feed GM’s myriad and increasingly sophisticated presence on the site.
Now, some folks have said the reason GM pulled its ads were because the auto giant failed to understand how to market on Facebook – but if that’s true, I’m not sure it’s entirely GM’s fault. Regardless, since the original WSJ piece came out, a raft of pieces questioning Facebook’s money machine have appeared, and they mostly say the same thing. Here’s last week’s New York Times, for example (titled Ahead of Facebook I.P.O., a Skeptical Madison Ave):
“It’s one of the most powerful branding mechanisms in the world, but it’s not an advertising mechanism,” said Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, the giant advertising agency.
“Facebook’s a silo,” said Darren Herman, the chief digital media officer at the Media Kitchen, an agency that helps clients on Facebook. “It is very hard to understand the efficacy of what a Facebook like, or fan or follow is worth.”
It seems, just ahead of the IPO, folks were realizing that Facebook doesn’t work like Google, or the web at large. It’s a service layered on top of the Web, and it has its own rules, its own ecosystem, and its own “native advertising platform.” In the run up to the IPO, a lot of folks began questioning whether that platform stands the test of time.
I’ll have more thoughts on that below, after a quick review of the past few days in FacebookLand.
What Just Happened?!
As I outlined above, Facebook faced a building storyline about the efficacy of its core revenue model, right before the opening bell. Not a good start, but then again, not unusual for a company going public.
One of the inevitabilities of negative news about a company is that it begets more negativity – people start to look for patterns that might prove that the initial bad news was just the tip of an iceberg. When word came out last week that demand for the stock was so high that insiders planned to sell even more shares at the open, many industry folks I spoke to began to wonder if the “greater fool” theory was kicking in. In other words, these people wondered, if the bankers and early investors in Facebook were increasing the number of shares they were selling at the outset, perhaps they knew something the general public didn’t – maybe they thought that $38 was as high as the stock was going to get – at least for a while.
Clearly, those industry folks were talking to more than just me. The press started questioning the increase. As Bloomberg reported at the time: “…insiders’ decision to pare holdings further may heighten some investors’ concern over Facebook’s earnings growth, said Greenwood Capital’s Walter Todd.”
That quote would prove prescient.
As Facebook opened trading last Friday, the stock instantly shot up – always taken as a good sign – but then it began to sink. Were it not for significant supportive buying by the offering’s lead banker, the stock would have closed below its opening price, an embarrassing signal that the offering was poorly handled. Facebook closed its first day of trading up marginally – not exactly the rocketship that many expected (a crowdsourced site predicted it would soar to $54, for example).
Then things got really bad. Over the weekend, officials at NASDAQ, the exchange where Facebook debuted, admitted they bungled the stock’s opening trades due to the massive demand, citing technical and other issues. Monday, the Wall Street Journal, among many others, questioned Morgan Stanley’s support of the stock. To make matters worse, the stock slid to around $34 by the end of the day. A frenzy of media coverage erupted – including a number of extraordinary allegations, first made late Monday evening, around insider information provided verbally to institutional investors but not disclosed to the public. That information included concerns that Facebook’s ad revenues were not growing as quickly as first thought, and that mobile usage, where Facebook’s monetization is weak, was exploding, exposing another hole in the company’s revenue model.
In other words, what my industry sources suspected might have been true - that insiders knew something, and decided to get out when the getting was good – may have been what really happened. True or not, such a story taints the offering considerably.
Predictably, those allegations have spawned calls for investigations by regulatory authorities and lawsuits or subpoenas by individual investors as well as the state of Massachusetts. On Tuesday, the stock sank again, closing at near $31, $7 off its opening price and more than $10 off its high point on opening day.
Not exactly a honeymoon for new public company CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who got married last Sunday to his college sweetheart. Today’s early trading must provide at least some comfort – Facebook is trading a bit up, in the $32 range, a price that many financial news outlets reported as the number most sophisticated investors felt was correct in the first place.
Is the worst of it over for Facebook’s IPO? I have no idea. But the core of the issue is what’s most interesting to me.
Stepping Back: What’s This Really All About?
Facebook is a very large, very profitable company and I am sure it will find its feet. I’m not a stock analyst, and I’m not going to try to predict whether or not the company is properly valued at any price.
But I do have a few thoughts about the underlying questions that are driving this whole fracas – Facebook’s revenue model.
Facebook makes 82% of its money by selling targeted display advertising – boxes on the top and right side of the site (it’s recently added ads at logout, and in newsfeeds). Not a particularly unique model on its face, but certainly unique underneath: Because Facebook knows so much about each person on its service, it can target in ways Google and others can only dream about. Over the years, Facebook has added new advertising products based on the unique identity, interest, and relationship data it owns: Advertisers can incorporate the fact that a friend of a friend “likes” a product, for example. Or they can incorporate their own marketing content into their ads, a practice known as “conversational marketing” that I’ve been on about for seven or so years (for more on that, see my post Conversational Marketing Is Hot – Again. Thanks Facebook!).
But as many have pointed out, Facebook’s approach to advertising has a problem: People don’t (yet) come to Facebook with the intention of consuming quality content (as they do with media sites), or finding an answer to a question (as they do at Google search). Yet Facebook’s ad system combines both those models – it employs a display ad unit (the foundation of brand-driven media sites) as well as a sophisticated ad-buying platform that’d be familiar to anyone who’s ever used Google AdWords.
I’m not sure how many advertisers use Facebook, but it’s probably a fair guess to say the number approaches or crosses the hundreds of thousands. That’s about how many used Overture and Google a decade ago. The big question is simply this: Do those Facebook ads work as well or better than other approaches? If the answer is yes, the question of valuation is rather moot. If the answer is no…Facebook’s got some work to do.
No such question hung over Google upon its stock debut. AdWords worked. People came to search with clear intent, and if you, as an advertiser, could match your product or service to that intent, you won. You’d put as much money as you could into the Google machine, because profit came out the other side. It was an entirely new model for advertising.
I think it’s fair to say the same is not yet true for Facebook’s native advertising solution. And that’s really what Facebook Ads are: the biggest example of a platform-specific “native advertising” play since Google AdWords broke out ten years ago.
But it’s not clear that Facebook’s ad platform works better than any number of other alternatives. For brand advertisers, those large “rising star” units, replete with video capabilities and rich contextual placements, are a damn good option, and increasingly affordable. And if an advertiser wants to message at the point of intent, well, that’s what Google (and Bing) are for.
It’s astonishing how quickly Facebook has gotten to $4billion in revenue – but at the end of the day, marketers must justify their spend. Sure, it makes sense to engage on a platform where nearly a billion people spend hours each month. But the question remains – how do you engage, and who do you pay for that engagement? Facebook is huge, and terribly successful at engaging its users. But what GM seems to have realized is that it can engage all day long on Facebook, without having to pay Facebook for the privilege of doing so. Perhaps the question can be rephrased this way: Has Facebook figured out how to deliver marketers long-term value creation? The jury seems out on that one.
Now that Facebook is public, it will face relentless pressure to convince that jury, which now demonstrates its vote via a real time stock price. That pressure could force potentially new and more intrusive ad units, and/or new approaches to monetization we’ve yet to see, including, as I predicted in January, a web-wide display network driven by Facebook data.
As Chris Dixon wrote earlier in the month:
The key question when trying to value Facebook’s stock is: can they find another business model that generates significantly more revenue per user without hurting the user experience?
A good question, and one I can only imagine folks at Facebook are pondering at the moment. Currently, Facebook’s ads are, in the majority, stuck in a model that doesn’t feel truly native to how people actually use the service. Can Facebook come up with a better solution? Integration of ad units into newsfeeds is one approach that bears watching (it reminds me of Twitter’s approach, for example), but I’m not sure that’s enough to feed a $4billion beast.
These questions are fascinating to consider – in particular in light of the “native monetization” craze sweeping other platforms like Tumblr, Twitter, Pinterest, and others. As I’ve argued elsewhere, unique approaches to marketing work only if they prove a return on total investment, including the cost of creating, optimizing, and supporting those native ad units when compared to other marketing approaches. Facebook clearly has the heft, and now the cash, to spend considerable resources to prove its approach. I can’t wait to see what happens next.