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How Much is Facebook’s Market Power Worth? January 10, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Perhaps you heard some noise this week about a $50 billion valuation for Facebook. Or mumblings about a nine-month profit of $335 million? Or a potential IPO in 2012? Putting a value on Facebook is beyond my pay scale. But it is the most important player in social media, and social media — along with mobile — is driving innovation across the entire technology spectrum. To better compete against, partner with or invest in Facebook, it’s worth evaluating its market positions, strengths and weaknesses.

Facebook itself is a consumer company, playing in the still-ripening consumer Internet fields of communications, content and commerce. It’s also a platform player, and platforms with rich ecosystems of developers are one of the best and most defensible businesses ever — just ask Microsoft. And Facebook’s platform is not just about scale; it has a shot at a being a real network effect, with the accompanying implications of high growth, customer lock-in and winner-take-all opportunities.

Platform and Ecosystem

Facebook has established itself as one of the largest Internet companies in terms of audience reach, frequency of usage and ability to drive traffic to other online sites. It’s social media ecosystem is healthy and growing. It continues to spawn investment in advertising and marketing services, and the success of companies like Zynga hint at how other developers in entertainment apps, location-based services and social commerce could build solid businesses.

Facebook’s APIs, Likes and Connect are widespread. Its messaging strategy could provide a universal inbox — or even presence manager — for some of its users, but isn’t suited for corporate or marketing email, and isn’t likely to replace personal email for most consumers online. While Facebook has a chance to make its platform the single most important one in social media, I suspect the current proliferation of APIs and mashups from many players, including Twitter, Google and Microsoft, will continue. There’s too much data being created now for a single social graph to dominate.

Net: Facebook should remain a leader in consumer technology, but likely won’t establish a winner-take-all platform.

Advertising

Advertising is Facebook’s primary revenue stream, and advertising is a business driven by economic cycles and demands ever more cross-media campaign coordination and ROI measurement. Facebook makes less money per user than does Google or Yahoo. It offers self-serve, relatively low-cost display advertising and is just beginning to exploit the rich targeting capabilities of its social graph for those and other display ads. When it does, and as it builds out sponsorship opportunities and measurement systems, it will be able to raise prices and garner more brand advertising spending.

Facebook barely participates in the biggest sector of online advertising — paid search. It has a promising Microsoft partnership, but there’s little evidence that users will do commerce-related searching on social networks. Facebook says it has no plans to build an ad network to tap its social graph outside its own site, and doesn’t charge brands for status updates, its closest equivalent to email marketing.

Net: Facebook is well beyond critical mass and has achieved mass media status, with plenty of growth opportunity. That said, Facebook is an Internet-only media company that should focus on and beef up its efforts in brand advertising, and establish partnerships for search, ad networks and email marketing.

Other Markets

Virtual goods from social games provide Facebook with $250 million in revenue, but the company shows no interest in other digital goods like music and video, perhaps due to their competitiveness and thin margins. Net: Facebook is strong but limited in digital goods, a profitable, but not huge business.

E-commerce may provide some opportunity for Facebook retail storefronts, but the online mall approach never worked for portals like Yahoo and Aol. Net: Facebook is well-positioned to play a social commerce role in customer acquisition and retention, but unlikely to have significant influence in online or brick-and-morter retail transactions.

Question of the week

Just how strong an industry force is Facebook?
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