Facebook’s incredible global reach and success appear to forestall challenges. In the long run, though, the social network’s growth and its frantic quest for new revenue sources raise questions. (First of two articles)    

Casting doubt on Facebook’s future is like going to Rome and questioning the existence of God. It’s not the right venue to do so. First, you can’t argue with figures, they’re overwhelming. Each institution features about the same number of devotees: 1.2 billion across the world. As for financials, Facebook’s annual report shows strong growth and wealth: $7.8bn in revenue for 2013 (+ 55% vs 2012), net income at $1.5bn and a $11bn cash pile. As for the Catholic Church, since it doesn’t not issue financial statements, we are left to guesstimates. Two years ago, a story in the Economist provided a back-of-the-envelope calculation putting the operating budget of the American Catholic Church alone to $170bn, the bulk being health and educational institutions, with $11bn for parishes where hardcore users are – which, for that part, is much better than Facebook.

Why, then, question Facebook’s future? Mainly for two reasons: ARPU evolution and diversification.

Let’s look at a few metrics. The most spectacular is the Monthly Active Users (MAUs) base: 1.23 billion people for the entire world. An interesting way to look at that number is to break down the global MAUs into geographic zones and combine those with ARPU numbers (calculated from the quarterly figures stated in the annual report). The results look like this:

316_facebook_arpu

Facebook’s long term challenge comes from these two factors: North American growth will be flat this year, and the rest of the world doesn’t bring much. The company is heavily and increasingly dependent on advertising: from 85% of its revenue in 2012 to 89% last year. Logically, its only option is to squeeze more money per user — which it steadily managed to do thus far. But, in the Facebook ecosystem, making more money from ads means milking more cash from users’ data. This, in turn, will lead to a greater invasion of privacy. It certainly doesn’t seem to bother Mark Zuckerberg, who is a transparency apologist.

Actually: Is he or was he?

As author David Kirkpatrick pointed out in his excellent opus, The Facebook Effect, Zuckerberg once said that “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” (and judging by FB’s content policy, anyone can wonder if putting a breast-feeding pictures a sign of depravation?)

That was then.

Now, to address privacy concerns, Facebook is said to consider anonymous logins. It’s probably a good idea to back off a bit on the totalitarian pitch quoted above, but since the extensive data-mining performed by the network is made much more valuable by its use of real user names, anonymous logins are sure to impact the ARPU in the more mature markets. Along that line of thought, in Europe, Facebook’s ARPU is less than half of what it is in the US & Canada: $8.04 vs. $18.70. This significantly lower number stems from privacy concerns that are much more developed in European countries. There, the 20-25 segment seems especially worried about the consequences of spending too much time on Facebook.

A remaining lever is what I’ll call the Big Tobacco strategy: Do elsewhere what you can no longer do on your home playing field. Facebook might not be as cynical as Philip Morris (reborn as Altria as an attempt to erase the stain), but it is undoubtedly bound to try and replicate its successful collect-and-milk consumer data mechanism.

This might take a while to achieve.

First because of the ultra-slim ARPU generated by emerging markets users. You might object that the Indian market, as an example, currently enjoys growth along two dimensions: more users, with growing incomes. Granted. But the more sophisticated the India market becomes, the more inclined it will be to create a social network much more attuned to its own culture than a Menlo Park-based system manned by geeks in hoodies. Never underestimate the power, nor the determination of locals. And, let’s not dream too much about a huge Chinese version of Facebook.

Also, for Facebook, the cost of operating its service will make the ARPU question one of growing urgency. Again, based on the 2013 annual report, FB’s Cost of Revenue — mostly infrastructure —  amounts to $1.9bn. Divided by the 757 million DAUs, it costs $2.5 per year to serve a single daily user, that is connecting to his/er pals, hosting photos, videos, etc. If we aggregate all the cost structure components (networking, giant data centers and also R&D, sales & marketing, administrative), the cost of taking care of a single daily user rise to $6.69 per year and $4.12 for a monthly user. It’s still fine for an American and a European, much less so for an Asian who brings a yearly ARPU of $3.15, or an African who brings a mere $2.64 (in theory, the strain on the infrastructure is roughly the same, regardless of user location).

But some will argue Facebook is doing quite well on mobile. Out of its 1.23 billion monthly users, FB says 945 million reach its service via a mobile each month and 556 million do so on a daily basis. And, as stated in its 10-K, mobile is at the core of Facebook’s future:

There are more than 1.5 billion internet users on personal computers, and more than three billion mobile users worldwide according to GSMA Wireless Intelligence, and we aspire to someday connect all of these people. 

Fine, but once again, the ARPU weakens the ambition. While a mobile subscriber in the US and Europe brings respectively $69 and $38 each year (source: GSMA), according to the Cellular Operator Association of India, a Indian mobile subscriber yields only $1.72 per year. This makes advertising projections a tricky exercise.

As it expands, Facebook’s current model will inevitably yield less and less money per user. Hence, its frenetic quest for diversification and service extensions — a topic we’ll address in a future Monday Note.

As for the Church, it certainly is a safer bet than Facebook: The user base is less volatile, the interface blends much better into local cultures, barriers to competitive entries are stronger (and much older), and believers have long sacrificed their privacy to articles of faith.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

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