Lots Of Blame To Go Around For Facebook’s IPO ‘Debacle’–But It Doesn’t Mean A Thing

Facebook CFO David Ebersman. (Photo: Wikipedia)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

When anything goes wrong, we just love a scapegoat, don’t we? Today’s scapegoat in the business world is David Ebersman, Facebook’s chief financial officer, who New York Times writer Andrew Ross Sorkin says is completely, solely, and utterly at fault for the social network’s underwhelming initial public offering and subsequent swoon in its stock price to less than half its IPO level.

Sorkin, as well as others, say Ebersman’s insistence on a higher stock price and especially on issuing more shares shortly before the offering were the key reason Facebook’s post-IPO shares not only failed to rise but steadily fell–vaporizing some $50 billion in shareholder value in the past 90 days.

But Ebersman is hardly the only culprit in the IPO. There’s also:

* Facebook’s underwriters, including Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan Chase. Not only did they go along with and even encourage the pre-IPO hype, but recently they cut their target prices for Facebook, contributing to today’s slide that knocked shares to under half the IPO level.

* Facebook investors. Business Insider’s Henry Blodget, who knows a little something about Internet stock dynamics, says investors willfully ignored both Facebook’s own warnings about advertising revenue uncertainties and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to, yes, investors, that he would focus on building Facebook’s services over maximizing its profits.

* Not least, CEO Mark Zuckerberg. After all, the buck (or in this case, 50 cents) stops here. While finances are probably at least third on the list of his concerns, behind Facebook’s services and its employees, a CEO ultimately is responsible for such a signature event in a company’s life.

Still, regardless of whom you might think is most culpable, in the end it probably will have little impact on Facebook’s prospects. That’s because there’s an even more fundamental reason to question the singling out of Ebersman: Perhaps Facebook’s IPO wasn’t really a debacle after all. …

Read the rest of the post at The New Persuaders.

Is Zynga the Canary in the Social Games Coal Mine?

Infographic courtesy of Tableau Software (click to see interactive version)

Cross-posted from my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

I stopped playing FarmVille several months ago. Why? I got bored. Apparently a lot of other people are getting bored, too–at least with playing FarmVille and other Zynga games on  their personal computers.

According to a research note from Cowen & Co. analyst Doug Creutz today, social games played on Facebook such as Zynga’s are seeing steadily dropping usage–leading to a fearsome 10% drop in its shares today, to $5 or less.

The reason, he says, is likely that more and more people are playing social games on their smartphones and tablets:

We believe that mobile devices may be siphoning off an accelerating number of gamers from Facebook. Facebook itself is increasingly being accessed by mobile devices, however it is not possible to play Facebook-native apps through Facebook on a smartphone. We believe that over the last two months, trends in the casual digital gaming space have swung decisively towards mobile and away from social, at least in Western markets.

No doubt that’s one reason, and an inevitable one as more people use their smartphones and tablets instead of PCs for many tasks (and fun and games). But I also wonder if enough people are realizing that these games are taking a little too much of their lives. …

Read the rest of the post at The New Persuaders.

Google Makes Renewed Grab for the Rest of Online Advertising

New DoubleClick ad system heats up battle to create an operating system for digital marketing

Cross-posted from my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Hundreds of well-funded online ad technology companies have sprouted up in recent years, each aiming to make it easier and more efficient for marketers to reach just the target audience they want.

Terence Kawaja, CEO of boutique investment bank Luma Partners, created this now-famous Display Lumascape to show how complex the online ad tech industry has become.

Yet the result is a crazy quilt of companies–graphically illustrated in that mess of a chart on the right–that drives marketers and agencies crazy. The very existence of so many competing products, in fact, has made placing ads online and measuring their impact more complicated and cumbersome than ever. “Venture capital has supported and financed a bunch of chaos,” advertising veteran Randall Rothenberg, CEO of the trade group Interactive Advertising Bureaugriped at a recent ad conference.

The result: Most ad dollars, nearly $200 billion a year, still get spent on television because it’s so much easier.

That’s the problem Google aims to solve with a revamped ad buying system it will announce today at a private Future of Advertising event hosted by its DoubleClick display-ad management and technology unit. (Part of the event will be livestreamed here.) The company, which already dominates 60% of the online ad business–those little text ads that appear on the right and top of the page when you do a search–now has its sights set on the remaining 40% of the industry. That would be the $25 billion worldwide market for display ads, the graphical and video banners familiar on virtually every commercial website.

Google’s goal: Provide the leading one-stop shop for advertisers and publishers to buy ads on websites, mobile phones, social networks, apps, and whatever other new media the Internet spawns. Essentially, it’s building an operating system for ads much like Microsoft did with its Windows for PCs–with much the same appeal to marketers and agencies as Windows has for PC users. “When you’re putting together a campaign, you want everything connected vs. trying to piece it all together,” says Kurt Unkel, president of the online ad buying operation at Publicis Groupe’s VivaKi digital ad agency, a Google partner.

Google’s announcement is the latest salvo in a war to control the next era of digital marketing. After a decade in which Google’s search ads overtook display ads with an unmatched ability to turn clicks directly into sales, many advertisers and publishers expect–or at least hope for–a resurgence of new kinds of display ads that could woo brand advertising dollars from TV. Neal Mohan, Google’s vice president of display advertising products, has predicted that display will be a $200 billion industry in a few years.

Read the rest of the story at The New Persuaders.

Beyond the Wow Factor: Why LinkedIn’s IPO Matters

It would be easy to take today’s blockbuster initial public offering by business networking service LinkedIn as a sign that the IPO, the fuel for the tech industry’s wealth-creation engine, is back. But one IPO on the first day won’t tell us that. It’s just as easy to dismiss the rocket-ride to well over double its already-raised offering price as a sign of another bubble. Again, one great IPO’s first day doesn’t mean everybody will party like it’s 1999 (though if it’s “brain-dead” to suspect there’s more than a little froth in Internet investing, take me off life support now).

Still, there are many other lessons we should take away from LinkedIn’s IPO. Here are a few:

* Social networking has arrived as more than a cute phenomenon. LinkedIn may not be Facebook or even Twitter, but it’s serious networking, using people’s social connections to create real value. A lot of people already know this, but for the rest, it’s well past time to stop listening to the Luddites who think Facebook and Twitter are nothing but places to tell people what you ate for lunch.

* At the same time, it’s also apparent that social networking won’t be a winner-take-all business. Yes, a lot of businesses and even professionals use Facebook for business purposes, and will continue to do so. But many more people recognize the value in having separate circles of friends, colleagues, business contacts, and the like. Now, I’d bet that Facebook could be the biggest winner–winner-take-most, if you will. But Mark Zuckerberg clearly won’t own everything social.

* This is the first real sign of whether individual-investor interest in IPOs has returned. It was already apparent that the (literally) marquee names like Facebook, or even Zynga or Groupon, would rock the world when they go public. They’ve got fame, huge and fast-growing revenues, and soaring private valuations already, so using them as a proxy for whether smaller fry would go public was always erroneous. LinkedIn, by contrast, is a much smaller business that’s closer to those of dozens of private Internet companies that to date have been unable to provide their venture investors and entrepreneurial teams exits besides getting acquired. You can be sure that those private Internet companies are using LinkedIn to research potential chief financial officers and arranging meetings with Wall Street investment bankers, if they weren’t already.

* Those shady private-market valuations, which have given Facebook, for one, $65 billion-and-up valuations, suddenly don’t look so crazy after all following the first IPO of an actively traded private company on private exchanges such as Second Market and SharesPost. LinkedIn’s $2.4 billion valuation on those marketplaces, in fact, indicates to some that the supposedly savvy investors trading shares privately vastly underestimated the value of these companies. No doubt LinkedIn’s market cap will be volatile, so it’s unwise to think that Facebook suddenly will be worth multiples of its already breathtaking valuation. But it’s clear that the limited number of shares being traded on these exchanges, as well as the limited amount of information these investors had, didn’t necessarily cause them to overpay. At the same time, it’s unlikely the SEC will back off from scrutinizing whether to regulate them–in fact, it may move even more quickly if this IPO sparks renewed interest in the exchanges.

* LinkedIn’s success proves that Web companies aren’t entirely dependent on advertising for revenues, providing hope that other business models such as subscriptions and paid services are credible alternatives. LinkedIn makes most of its revenues not from advertising but from paid services for recruiters and premium subscriptions.

* Nice guys don’t always finish last. Talk to almost any entrepreneur about LinkedIn cofounder and executive chairman Reid Hoffman, and you’ll get nothing but admiration, and not just because he’s an angel investor in many dozens of their startups as well as a partner in the venture capital firm Greylock Partners. Hoffman seems generous with his time–not least, full disclosure, with me as a reporter since LinkedIn’s earliest days. I remember asking him once, years ago, about the libertarian, government-bashing leanings of some of his more famous colleagues from PayPal, and he sighed and recalled how, as the liberal in the bunch, he kept pushing them to give back to people less fortunate than they. Regardless of your politics, though, isn’t it nice to see that you can become a billionaire without being a jerk?

* For individual investors, the rule for Internet company stocks still should be caveat emptor. That $8 billion $9 billion valuation likely won’t stay that high in coming weeks or months, not consistently anyway, as the pent-up enthusiasm for Internet IPOs gets spent (at least until Groupon or Zynga or Facebook cranks it up again). For all the success of LinkedIn as a company and as a bellwether for Internet stock issues, it’s still a speculative play, and its share movement may well drive home yet another lesson: Individual investors should never put money they can’t afford to lose into anything their dentist is investing in, their cabbie mentions, or the press is hyperventilating about.

Facebook Ad Chief David Fischer: Making Ads ‘the Best Thing on the Page’

In March of last year, just as market watchers Hitwise and comScore reported that Facebook overtook Google as the most visited website for the first time, Facebook also stole one of Google’s top ad executives: David Fischer. The former deputy of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg at Google and a onetime editor at U.S. News & World Report, the 37-year-old Fischer left a job spearheading the search giant’s local ad effort to become Facebook’s vice president of advertising and global operations.

Despite his sales background, insiders say Fischer was a good fit with Facebook’s geek culture. At Google, “he made (sales) people in an engineering culture feel that they were valued,” says David Scacco, Google’s first ad salesman and now chief revenue officer at MyLikes, which pays celebrities and other online influencers to promote ads on social sites. And despite a modest demeanor in public, he was known for sometimes cutting loose, dressing up as Ozzy Osbourne and singing ‘80s songs at sales conferences. That said, he’s clearly a sales guy: In a 50-minute interview, he used the word “opportunity” or its plural 58 times.

In this edited interview for my story on Facebook’s advertising strategy in the latest issue of MIT’s Technology Review magazine, Fischer talks about how Facebook hopes to transform marketing into “the most useful thing on the page.”

Q: What’s your vision of advertising, and how can Facebook make that happen?

A: The Web is being rewritten around people. There’s this transformation that’s happening from an information Web to a social Web. Once the Internet was great for answering questions like “What is the weather going to be like in Cambridge tomorrow?” and “What flights can I get from Boston to San Francisco?” It wasn’t so good at aggregating information about the way we actually live our lives, which is people.

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You Are the Ad: Digging Into Facebook’s Advertising Strategy

When I first  started looking closely at Facebook’s booming advertising business for an article that just appeared in MIT’s Technology Review, I was soon struck by an apparent disconnect. The social networking juggernaut clearly is gunning for big brand advertisers, hoping they will view its 600 million-plus audience as the next big ad opportunity beyond television.

Yet it appears that most of the ads on Facebook are actually from either small businesses or no-longer-small businesses (but not traditional brands) such as social games maker Zynga and daily deal service Groupon. What’s more, those ads seem more aimed at eliciting a direct response such as an email registration or a purchase on another Web site than they are aimed at branding, which is intended to implant a brand into consumers’ minds that might get triggered later when they’re ready to buy something. And between Google’s search ads and a gazillion display ad networks, online direct-response advertising is already a wee bit crowded–even if Facebook’s massive database of personal info holds a lot of appeal for targeting likely prospects.

In other words, it looks like most advertisers on Facebook aren’t yet using its ad platform for the very purpose it’s designed for: branding. Of course, it’s tough to complain about a company whose ad revenues are doubling, to an estimated $4 billion this year. But if Facebook is to fulfill the huge expectations of its investors, who are valuing Facebook at around $65 billion (give or take $10 billion or $15 billion depending on who’s counting), it needs to do more than provide just another way to drive a direct sale. It needs to capture–or create–a market out of the vast majority of ad spending overall that’s aimed at branding.

One way to do that is providing what Facebook has been doggedly pitching to Madison Avenue for years: ads with a social component, such as its recently introduced Sponsored Stories, in which people’s stated “likes” for a product or brand are turned into ads. These essentially are word-of-mouth marketing on steroids. David Fischer, Facebook’s vice president of advertising and global operations, lays out this possibility in detail in an interview I’ll post here shortly. Suffice to say, there’s certainly potential for brands to divert a significant portion of their television and print ad budgets–and a few are starting–but for a lot of brands and their agencies, that’s still on the come. For now, they seem more enamored of Facebook marketing tools such as Likes and Pages–which are free.

Another strategy is to create a new advertising market, as Google did with its search advertising. Search ads enabled very small businesses, as well as those with just an online presence, to place effective direct-response ads for a global audience for the first time. Likewise, Facebook could open up brand advertising to the business masses in a way no medium has yet done. That’s something Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg makes a good case for in my interview with her. Depending on how you define branding vs. direct-response, this may already constitute a good bit of Facebook’s advertising.

Either way, I came away understanding why investors seem so enamored of the company’s potential–but also why many people in the advertising business aren’t yet ready to place all their chips on Facebook.