FACEBOOK HAS always had two faces. One is the grimace of a company that many people, in particular politicians, love to hate. President Joe Biden recently accused the social-media giant of “killing people” by spreading misinformation about vaccines against covid-19. (He later rowed back a bit after Facebook pointed out it does quite a lot to stop the spread of such content and to promote legitimate vaccine tips.)
The other face is a happy one of a firm that users, advertisers and investors cannot live without. Analysts predict it will be grinning again on July 28th, when it presents second-quarter results. Revenues are expected to rise by nearly 60%, year on year, to around $28bn—despite Apple’s update in April to its iPhone operating system that allows users easily to opt out of being tracked around the web by apps like Facebook. That would put it on track to exceed $100bn in sales this financial year. Quarterly net profit could come in just shy of $10bn, double that of a year ago. No wonder Facebook looks poised to become a long-term member of the exclusive club of companies with a market value above $1trn, which it joined earlier this year (see chart).
How can a firm with such political baggage be so successful? The answer is two sides of the same coin. With more than 2.7bn daily global users, Facebook’s main offerings—its flagship social network (known internally as Blue), photo-sharing on Instagram and messaging on WhatsApp and Messenger—are a digital magnifying glass of human nature. This glass amplifies the good (neighbourly help amid the pandemic) as well as the bad (conspiracy theories and quack cures). It also serves as a remarkable lens for advertisers to focus in on the world’s consumers. And the two-facedness is likely to become more pronounced should Facebook succeed with its biggest project yet: creating a “metaverse” that would combine a 3D digital world with the 3D physical one.
At its core Facebook is a giant advertising machine. Adverts generate 98% of its revenue. Blue remains a dominant ad platform internationally, raking in perhaps $55bn last year, according to estimates by KeyBanc Capital Markets (Facebook does not break out revenues by service). Instagram, which Facebook bought in 2012 for what seemed like a colossal $1bn, now chips in another $20bn or more, taking its share of overall ad revenues to nearly 30%, up from just over 10% in 2017.
Debra Aho Williamson of eMarketer, a data provider, praises Facebook’s ability to target ads as “incredibly precise”. Advertisers value this highly: Facebook earns more than $9 a year for every one of its users, about twice as much as Twitter does. The firm observes what its users do not only on its own services, but almost everywhere else online. This lets it pick what products to flog to a given user, identify others with similar interests and find out whether they bought something after seeing the ad.
Even before the pandemic hit, this was hard to resist, especially for smaller firms with fewer resources to run sophisticated marketing operations, which make up the bulk of Facebook’s 10m advertisers, but also for most big global brands. Even Chinese sellers are spending billions of dollars on Facebook, says Brian Wieser of GroupM, which places ads on behalf of brands. Although Facebook’s apps are banned in China, Chinese merchants can plug their wares to Western consumers thanks to firms such as Wish, an American online marketplace that helps arrange ads, payment and shipping.
No commercial brakes
Covid-19 has turbocharged Facebook’s machine. Confined to home, the average American user spent nearly 35 minutes per day on Blue and Instagram in 2020, according to eMarketer, two minutes more than the year before. That adds up to thousands of additional years of collective attention. While some firms went belly-up or cut advertising spending amid last year’s recession, others were created: 6.6m in America alone since the start of the pandemic. Many want a slice of that extra attention. These days it is unimaginable to run an online consumer business without targeted ads, notes Mark Shmulik of Bernstein, a broker, just as it was once unthinkable to run a business without a bricks-and-mortar shop. A bigger share of such firms’ budgets will be spent on Facebook and its fellow ad-tech giant Google, says Mr Shmulik. Some admen are calling it “the new rent”.
Facebook has added more than 2m renters since the start of the pandemic. It is almost certain to add more of them as economies reopen and digital ads, which already make up 60% of overall ad spending in America, keep chipping away at TV and other traditional media. The impact of Apple’s new tracking opt-out, which four in five iPhone users have already embraced, according to Flurry, a data firm, will not be clear until the next round of quarterly results in October, observes Mark Mahaney of Evercore ISI, an investment bank. But even if this makes Facebook’s targeting a bit less effective, it will still be at least as good as its competitors’, he predicts. And although on July 23rd American trustbusters got another three weeks to refile a lawsuit against Facebook, which had been thrown out last month for lack of evidence, they will struggle to prove that the company is a social-networking monopolist under current competition law. For all the anti-tech bluster in Washington, DC, this is unlikely to change as long as Congress remains polarised.
The bigger threat to Facebook’s continued success, which has long preoccupied Mark Zuckerberg, its co-founder and chief executive, is that virtual masses finally tire of its apps and move elsewhere, pulling advertisers with them. Over the past two years a new generation of social media has emerged that could do just that. Although Facebook’s share of American digital advertising has continued to grow in recent years, its global social-media advertising has been edging down since 2016. The challengers range from specialists such as Clubhouse and Discord, two audio-chat services, to Snapchat and TikTok, which take on Blue and especially Instagram more directly. TikTok fans in America now spend more than 21 hours a month on the video app, compared with less than 18 hours that users spend on Blue, according to App Annie, a market-research firm.
In the past, Facebook might have snapped up smaller rivals, as it did with Instagram. With trustbusters looking over its shoulder, it is instead placing a number of big bets. The first is on the “creator economy”, which lets people make money from digital works such as videos or newsletters. This is an extension of its ad business, but one where it has fallen behind new rivals. TikTok and YouTube, in particular, have been better at attracting creators who keep users glued to their smartphone screens. In April Facebook announced that it was developing new audio features, including Clubhouse-like chat rooms in which listeners can tip performers. In June it launched Bulletin, a newsletter-hosting service that is similar to Substack, which popularised the genre. The following month Mr Zuckerberg vowed to shower creators on Blue and Instagram with $1bn by the end of next year (without specifying what form these payments would take).
Facebook’s second wager looks beyond advertising to e-commerce. It already hosts 1.2m online shops on Blue and Instagram. That puts it in the same league as Shopify, a fast-growing rival to Amazon, which has 1.7m. A month ago Facebook launched a new way to lets buyers try on clothes virtually. It also plans to link its “Shops” offering with Marketplace, its existing peer-to-peer trading service, and WhatsApp, which Facebook wants to turn into a vehicle for chat-based “conversational commerce”, the latest trend in online shopping. Later this year it would like to phase in a version of Diem, its controversial cryptocurrency (formerly known as Libra), that would beef up its payments infrastructure.
For now Facebook has waived seller fees but they could add a few billion dollars to its turnover as soon as next year. Besides bringing in non-advertising revenues, an e-commerce business would also help the company with its tracking problem. If shoppers spend more time and leave more data on its platform the inability to follow them across the rest of the web becomes less important. Mr Shmulik expects the e-commerce landscape to fragment into such walled gardens, each combing shopping and advertising, and operated by a tech giant.
Mr Zuckerberg’s grandest gamble concerns the metaverse. When he spent $2bn in 2014 to buy Oculus, a maker of virtual-reality (VR) gear, many thought he was buying himself a toy. But in recent years Facebook has made further VR-related acquisitions, most recently BigBox VR, the developer of “Population: One”, a shooter game similar to “Fortnite”. This gives Facebook control of a hardware platform for VR and its sibling, “augmented reality” (AR), which serves users digital information as they survey the real world through smart spectacles and the like.
And as with e-commerce, part of Facebook’s rationale could be to create strategic sovereignty, by lessening its dependence on the whims of hardware-makers such as Apple. The potential prize is large. Sales of Oculus headsets contributed around $1bn to Facebook’s revenues last year. If the technology keeps improving, VR and AR are the obvious next phase of video-gaming, which has grown into an industry with global revenues of $180bn.
Mr Zuckerberg’s ambitions do not stop there, however. He doesn’t see the metaverse, which now has its own division within the firm, merely as a place to enjoy games or other immersive entertainment. Instead, he envisages it as a virtual space where people live and work, in keeping with a dream that geeks have harboured since 1992, when the term metaverse was coined by Neal Stephenson, a science-fiction author. In five years’ time, Mr Zuckerberg has said, he would like Facebook no longer to be seen primarily as a social-media company but as a metaverse company.
That would make Facebook cool again. It would no doubt also invite more scrutiny from critics worried about the firm’s power. Should users look on course to spend 35 hours a week immersed in its virtual world, rather than 35 minutes a day, this could invite regulation that actually bites. For now, the metaverse is encouraging something Mr Zuckerberg fears more: competition. Others sizing up the field include video-game firms like Roblox and Epic Games, as well as tech giants Apple, which is reportedly planning its own AR glasses, and Microsoft, which already sells AR goggles. If Facebook beats them to metaverse supremacy, it will have plenty to grin about. Otherwise, expect serious grimacing.