On Tuesday, I wrote that Facebook might be invincible. On Wednesday, Facebook proved me very, very wrong.
The social media giant, which has persisted through numerous public relations nightmares over the past 18 months and was riding a record-high stock price, came crashing down with an uncharacteristically bad quarterly report this week. User growth was bad. Revenue growth was just okay, and Facebook warned it will get worse.
So, investors panicked, and by the time Facebook executives were done trying to soothe concerns on their earnings call, the stock was down almost 21 percent in after-hours trading.
The bad report wasn’t the result of any one thing, but it raised an important, and scary question: Have Facebook’s missteps finally cost it?
First, the issues.
Facebook’s revenue growth was just okay, and is going to get worse
Facebook has been warning investors about a revenue growth slowdown for years. It just never came. But it finally missed revenue expectations — its first revenue miss since 2015 — and coupled that with a warning to investors: Our revenue growth will slow noticeably in the second half of 2018. Specifically, Facebook said its revenue growth rate would drop by “high single digit” percentage points sequentially in the third and fourth quarters.
What’s that look like? For argument’s sake, let’s take a “high single digit” decline to mean 7 percent. That would suggest Facebook’s 42 percent year-over-year revenue growth in the second quarter could be 35 percent growth in the third quarter. And 28 percent revenue growth in the fourth quarter. That’s still (solid!) growth, but it’s a far cry from where Facebook has been these past few years.
Some of this was inevitable, because revenue is getting big enough that it couldn’t realistically grow at the same rate forever. And, as the company has mentioned before, the social network is running out of places to show ads in News Feed, which means Facebook either needs to charge more for those ads, find new places to put them, or sign up more users in order to keep growing.
But the call illuminated a few other reasons for the decline. One was the new European privacy laws, known as GDPR, which will limit some of Facebook’s targeting capabilities for certain users who opt out of its data policies. Facebook described that impact as “modest.”
The more interesting reason Facebook gave was that it’s pushing more people to use Stories, the popular ephemeral sharing feature that now lives inside Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and Facebook’s core app. Facebook can’t make as much money off Stories than it can from News Feed, says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
Basically, the product is too new and the advertiser demand isn’t there yet. So while the company is excited to have people using the new format — it feels like it’s going to be here a long time, and is particularly well suited for video ads — it’s not making comparable money off of it, and maybe it never will.
“Will this monetize at the same rate as News Feed?” Sandberg asked on the call. “We honestly don’t know.”
Don’t know? Interesting.
Facebook’s user growth was not good
Facebook added 22 million daily users last quarter, which was the company’s smallest quarter-over-quarter jump since as far back as we have data, which is early 2011. Also scary: Facebook user growth has plateaued in the U.S. and Canada, its most valuable market. And on top of that, Facebook saw a decline of 3 million daily users in Europe last quarter, its first ever decline in that market.
It was an all-around bad day for user growth, which has been virtually unstoppable for Facebook for years.
The knee-jerk reaction is to assume people are finally be fed up with Facebook’s privacy issues. The social network has given people reasons to distrust the company over and over and over again these past 18 months. It feels like, perhaps, users may finally be fed up.
And frankly, Facebook didn’t provide any good excuse for the user growth slowdown. The company said that some of the decline in Europe was the result of GDPR changes, which require Facebook to get more explicit opt-in from users for some of its data collection policies. But beyond that, there wasn’t an obvious one-time excuse for why Facebook didn’t sign up as many new users as usual.
In fact, Facebook hinted that this might be a lingering problem. It unveiled a new metric yesterday, what it’s calling the “family audience”: The total number of unique individuals who use at least one of the company’s apps. That number is 2.5 billion people, which is huge. But it feels like a shiny new stat to distract from the suddenly problematic old ones. Focusing on that total audience moving forward may give Facebook a chance to mask user growth issues for some of its individual products.
Here’s an apt — and very funny — tweet from The Verge’s Casey Newton on that:
This metric was previously housed in a glass case labeled BREAK IN CASE OF EMERGENCY https://t.co/LI07sddR6U— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) July 25, 2018
But here’s the good news if you’re a Facebook investor: Wall Street may be concerned about Facebook’s health, but the company has been forecasting a lot of these issues for some time. The revenue growth slowdown? Facebook has been talking about it since mid 2016. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has even promised that the investment in Facebook’s security efforts would hurt company profits.
And even though Facebook’s U.S. audience isn’t growing, it hasn’t been growing for almost a year. Given the animosity around Zuckerberg and Facebook these days — and the fact that Facebook will eventually run out of people to sign up, period — it may be more surprising that that audience isn’t shrinking.
So yes, Facebook is not invincible. But it’s not as surprising as we think it is, either. That said, today, it will pay a price for its troubles. Assuming its after-market declines stick around during trading today, the company is now worth about $125 billion less.