Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reaps benefits of mobile ads push
Results due after the close of trading Wednesday will probably show that revenue rose 34 percent to $1.52 billion last quarter, according to analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. That would be the first growth acceleration since Facebook sold shares to the public in May. Revenue climbed 32 percent in the preceding two periods, a slowdown from earlier quarters.
Shares of Facebook have climbed 74 percent since slumping to a record in September, bolstered by signs of buoyant demand for marketing messages shown to users of social networks on tablets and smartphones. Mobile advertising made up 24 percent of the total in the fourth quarter, up from 14 percent in the prior period, according to Topeka Capital Markets Inc. That suggests new tools aimed at making ads more useful on small screens are having the desired effect with corporate customers.
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"Mobile is definitely important to them, mainly because usage is shifting over to mobile," said Victor Anthony, an analyst at Topeka Capital Markets who rates the stock a buy. "They'll have to continue to show they're making strides in monetizing mobile."
Revenue from mobile doubled last quarter to $304 million, Anthony predicted. Analysts at JPMorgan Chase & Co. estimate that mobile contributed $384.2 million, or 27 percent of the total.
Facebook's fourth-quarter profit excluding certain items probably rose to 15 cents a share, the average estimate compiled by Bloomberg. Net income slumped to $45.8 million, according to analysts' projections.
Shares slipped 5.2 percent to $30.79 Tuesday, leaving the stock down 19 percent since the company sold shares at $38 apiece in a May 17 initial public offering, one of the most closely watched market debuts of the year.
In Germany, the shares traded at the equivalent of $31.31 as of 1:03 p.m. in Frankfurt, or 1.7 percent higher than the U.S. close.
The stock fell for most of the succeeding five months, wiping out more than $40 billion in market capitalization, amid concerns that Facebook and its advisers had set the IPO price too high for a company that hadn't yet come to grips with a shift to mobile computing.
Shares reversed course beginning in early September amid signs that mobile advertising tools introduced in March were meeting with success. Zuckerberg reassured investors during a technology conference that month that mobile was a big focus for the company.
The following month, the company reported that mobile ads delivered about $150 million in revenue. Estimates for fourth-quarter earnings have risen about 11 percent from the day before the previous period's results were announced on Oct. 23 to now, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Estimates for 2013 sales jumped about 6 percent.
"Our opportunity on mobile is the most misunderstood aspect of Facebook today," Zuckerberg told analysts during a call on Oct. 23. "Most people underestimate how fundamentally good the trend toward mobile can be for Facebook."
Mobile ads have taken on added importance for the company as more users wield smartphones and tablets rather than personal computers to check on friends' newest photos and status updates. In the third quarter, the percentage of users accessing the service through mobile devices rose to about 60 percent from 47 percent a year earlier and just 36 percent the year before that, regulatory filings show.
Facebook led the U.S. mobile display-advertising market in 2012, beating out rival Google Inc., according to projections by EMarketer Inc. Facebook had zero market share in 2011.
Ad prices on mobile are bolstering the company's revenue, according to Spruce Media, which provides technology to help companies buy ads on Facebook. A key advertising metric, the cost of 1,000 views by users, was $5.21 during the fourth quarter for mobile compared to the average of 38 cents for ads across Facebook. While the mobile ad price was down 10 percent from the third quarter, the decline was due to Facebook adding more inventory as the service was expanded to more users, said Lucy Jacobs, chief operating officer at Spruce Media.
"Mobile's had really good performance," Jacobs said. "Budgets are shifting into mobile."
Still, Facebook needs to provide more analytics to keep companies interested in mobile advertising. These tools would offer such information as how the ads are affecting sales, she said.
While Facebook has been investing in mobile ads, it's also boosted ad services in other areas. Last year, it rolled out the Facebook Exchange, which lets advertisers tailor marketing messages to users based on previous browsing histories on the Web.
The company also is investing in new products. Earlier this month, Facebook unveiled "Graph Search," which is designed to make it easier for users to find friends, restaurants, locations and interests based on their social connections. The company also unveiled new applications for Apple Inc.'s iPhone and devices running Google Inc.'s Android software last year. The investments should help maintain user interest on the service and push back against rival social services such as Twitter Inc. and Pinterest Inc.
"They do have to continue to invest pretty heavily in the business," said Martin Pyykkonen, an analyst at Wedge Partners Corp.
Revenue should improve in 2013 as the investments pay off, according to Aaron Kessler, an analyst at Raymond James & Associates. He raised his rating to outperform from market perform and boosted sales estimates earlier this week to $6.77 billion this year, from $6.7 billion.
"Given the early positive feedback and traction from Mobile and News Feed as well as the Facebook Exchange, we believe Facebook is poised for strong ad revenue growth," Kessler said in the research note.