Beyond plans to spend like crazy on everything from search to virtual reality, Facebook gave investors little to complain about in its fourth-quarter results reported Jan. 28. Ad revenues jumped a stunning 53%, and they would have been five points higher but for currency fluctuations. Mobile ads rose to 69% of those revenues, up from 53% a year ago, a sure sign of the company’s progress in making advertising on phones and tablets compelling. Annual revenues blew past $10 billion for the first time.
But investors pay for future profits, so it’s important to step back a bit and assess how well Facebook is positioned vs. an always-growing pack of rivals–Snapchat, Pinterest, Google and YouTube, Twitter, and yes, even Yahoo. In particular, it’s not yet clear that Facebook has cracked the opportunity for brand advertising, the kind of image ads that dominate television, where most advertising dollars are still spent.
What’s the problem? One ad agency executive I talked to has an idea, and it involves not only advertising but the reality of Facebook’s core service, its news feed. The issue, says Craig Elimeliah, senior vice president and director of creative technology at RAPP, is that Facebook has saturated its most lucrative audience, the U.S. and to some extent Europe. There’s the rest of the world, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg says the Internet.org effort to get them online is one of Facebook’s 10-year projects, not three to five years.
To keep growing–not just audience but time spent on the site, which leads to revenues–Facebook must give people more reasons to use it than they have, Elimeliah says. While Facebook has frequently changed up the look and the algorithms of the news feed, we’re still doing basically the same things on it that we have for years: watching a bunch of cat videos, fake news stories from the Onion, and photos from friends. Nothing wrong with all that, but it’s pretty passive, especially for a social network in the hyperconnected age of Snapchat.
“They really haven’t evolved the engagement on the platform much,” says Elimeliah. “There’s a lot of noise and clutter.” He thinks the rise of Snapchat shows how young people want closer, more immediate interactions with friends, and advertising that works in that context. Indeed, Elimeliah says he’s “blown away” by Snapchat Discover, its just-announced content and advertising service (check out the video below). The “low-friction” experience is already getting kudos from media types. “It blows Facebook out of the water from an engagement standpoint,” he says, because it fits so well into the intimate and yes, ephemeral Snapchat service.
Facebook needs to make sure it provides the right context for those ads–a place where ads not only seem natural but play in a context that isn’t quite as noisy and distracting as the current news feed. Video ads also seem unlikely to be effective unless they are made to be consumed on the go and provide actionable information–so they can’t be simply downsized TV spots. “I don’t know if the Facebook platform can make that kind of change,” Elimeliah says. …