Handicapping Facebook’s Next Billion-Dollar Business(es)

Amidst reports that it was having trouble unloading $1 billion worth of shares at a very rich valuation, Facebook last week tweaked an existing advertising service and started testing its first home-grown social commerce product: Facebook Deals. Will that be Facebook’s next billion-dollar business? Possibly. But it already faces stiff competition from Groupon and LivingSocial, not to mention a new Google entrant. More importantly, other growth- and revenue-generating opportunities exist that could be worth exploration on the part of Facebook, too.

Let’s examine each of these potential new revenue streams.

Big New Businesses for Facebook

Facebook dominates social media and the advertising spending that surrounds it. The company makes its money from low-priced display advertising (estimated at nearly $2 billion in 2010) and the 30 percent commission it takes from social gaming companies using Facebook Credits for virtual goods (forecast to be $250 million in 2011). Its three best new business opportunities are:

  • Rich-media brand advertising: To get at ad budgets that need more than the low-priced display ads driving social networks, Facebook needs to offer brand advertisers big, rich-media ad units like those of the New York Times and AOL. If it’s worried about user resistance, Facebook could show the ad only once a day, leave it over on the nearly empty right-hand sidebar or even reserve it for Friday movie openings and holiday promotions. Other than Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL, no other site has inventory with the audience reach for this kind of advertising, which commands $30-plus cost-per-thousand pricing and is usually sold out. This one should be a slam dunk.
  • Deals and social commerce: Facebook’s toe is barely in the social commerce water — it’s testing Deals in only five cities, sourcing some of the offers from partners and not charging merchants anything yet. Facebook is differentiating its deals by not demanding they be deeply discounted, and focusing on more social, shared-experience offers like restaurant deals or concert tickets. Local deals require an expensive local sales force that Facebook doesn’t have. While the company can deal directly with national retailers and merchants that target locally — a good opportunity otherwise — most of them don’t make the kind of “shared experience” products mentioned above.
  • Connect-based ad network: Unlike most ad networks, which make do with remnant ad inventory scraped from the bottom of online publishers’ barrels, Facebook has access to ready-made, desirable space through Connect services such as its Like button, sign-on and comments. Even without getting into behavioral targeting, Facebook could show ads targeted by context just like Google’s AdSense network. For example, it could serve up a hotel ad in an online newspaper’s travel section. If publishers balk, and weren’t cowed by their need for the traffic that Likes generate, Facebook could always share a piece of the revenue.

Potential Partnerships

I’ve talked about Facebook’s need for brand advertising and its potential to create an ad network before, and this piece by Jason Calacanis and his Launch team also likes those two opportunities and tries to put a dollar figure on their near-term revenue. He also suggests Facebook do in-stream advertising, which I suspect Facebook would deem too intrusive and competitive with Like messages and other promotions. Other potential revenue streams? Facebook has never charged for company pages (it sells them ads), I’m skeptical that it could do search effectively, and it has been very selective about data licensing.

But it needs partners to tap into the three new businesses identified above. Companies like:

  • Microsoft, already working with Facebook on search, who could build the ad network. These days, however, Microsoft seems focused almost exclusively on search after outsourcing some ad network functions.
  • Gilt Groupe, whose Gilt City deals unit is part of Facebook’s trials. Unlike other deal companies, Gilt also is a retailer, which could open other social-commerce doors.
  • Other online ad technology companies that could help Facebook’s advertising platform. Those that do data mining (e.g., Experian, Audience Science, BlueKai) and social targeting (e.g., Lotame, 33Across, Media6Degrees, Rapleaf) may need to do direct deals with Facebook to accommodate potential privacy legislation.

Question of the week

What will be Facebook’s next billion-dollar business?
Relevant Analyst
P1040724

David Card

VP Research Gigaom Research

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