Facebook's Varying Advertising ROI and Inherent Vulnerability Raise Concern Over Its Long-Term Ad Viability
Kenneth Wisnefski, May 24, 2012
Since coming online in 2004, Facebook has risen to the top of the social media landscape and asserted itself as the essential platform for connecting with people over the internet. Now, with over 900 million users, it is extremely popular and being used at an increasing rate as a marketing and advertising platform for businesses across all industries. Although, there is considerable worth for businesses on the platform, the value of it for these specific purposes varies greatly.
Within marketing, Facebook is excellent for branding, engagement, and growing reach, but with advertising it is not so cut and dry. Advertising on Facebook is great for some brands but it simply does not give adequate ROI for many others as evidenced by the timely withdrawal of General Motors' (GM) advertising efforts on the platform. This is the essential point of the company's disappointing IPO. The company has assumed an advertising-focused business model to capitalize on their massive stores of personal information in order to generate their revenue, but the nature of advertising on the platform cannot support the valuation that was seen in the run-up to the launch.
For a company that generates 82% of its revenue from advertising (first quarter 2012 figures), Facebook's advertising model needs to be more robust across the board for it to be the sustainable long-term income generator that the initial valuation positioned it to be. The reality is their advertising model does not reflect this as the average quarterly revenue per user is only $1.21, compared to AOL's $2.39, and Google's $7.14. With that said Facebook will have value and indeed make money, but the significant variance in advertising ROI is the primary element that will prohibit them from generating the kind of advertising revenue that would justify their desired value.
Additionally, the very climate that gave legs to Facebook's growth is also a threat to its long-term viability. Online social behavior is very dynamic and there is inherent vulnerability in Facebook's product - its user experience. Facebook is built on user behavior and the experience they have with the site, and there is no guarantee that current positive behavior will continue. If behavior changes negatively over time and users engage with each other less or spend less time on the platform (as has been experienced in Australia), the value of ads will drop and the company's worth will be degraded. Such "Facebook fatigue" has been seen in pockets already and there is potential for more of this in the future.
Similarly, the social media industry is constantly evolving in terms of what users want, what is possible, and the inevitable competition that arises. With advances in all facets of technology growing so quickly, from the functionality of the standard web, to mobile devices and smart TV's, the way users engage with social media and what they look for will undoubtedly change. In this process, it is possible for strong Facebook competitors to arise offering something new and different, two elements that gave life to Facebook early on. What gives Facebook its strength is its popularity and user-base size, but these numbers are not set in stone as their competition increases. The recent rise of Pinterest, which recently became the fastest standalone website to surpass 10 million visitors-per-month, is a firm example of such competition as it offers something very different than what Facebook delivers. The argument is not that Pinterest, or others, will directly overtake Facebook but that Pinterest and other news platforms will steal time spent on social media away from Facebook, devaluing its revenue-generating ads.
Facebook certainly has a future, but it is likely not anywhere near as bright in financial terms as the build-up to its IPO would lead us to believe. Those looking to market themselves and gain exposure by engaging with customers on the platform, do so purposefully as there is significant return for the relative cost. For advertising, though, businesses should evaluate if it is the right option for them based on the products they sell and the type of conversions they are looking for. In the end, the future direction of Facebook depends on their ability to respond to changes in the social landscape as well as improve their advertising offerings and larger revenue generation model, a tall task given the discussed inherent challenges.