Every few years, a strange affliction breaks out in Silicon Valley. The disease, Facebook Second Guessing Syndrome, has as its worst symptom an embarrassing tendency to predict an early peak for the fortunes of the world’s largest social network.
To techies who laud Apple for its hardware and software design or Google for its data-crunching prowess, Facebook has long looked a little frivolous and more than a tad faddish. The company’s genius is in bringing people together and persuading them to stick around, an unusual skill in Silicon Valley, and something Mark Zuckerberg’s company has managed to do consistently for more than a decade.
That’s despite various potential threats to its dominance — the rise of alternative social networks, a shift from desktop computers to mobile phones and the perpetual technological fickleness of young people. Facebook has even managed to reap substantial profits from its operations, beating analysts’ expectations in every quarterly earnings report over the past two years. Its market valuation recently surpassed US$230 billion, passing JPMorgan Chase and within striking distance of General Electric.
Yet the skepticism persists.
Now, as the company holds a developer conference this week in San Francisco, another theory arguing that Facebook’s success may be illusory has been making the rounds. This theory concerns the rapid growth in Facebook’s business of selling ads in its smartphone app, which is the most used app on the planet.
The trouble, the theory goes, is that Facebook is increasingly depending on these ads, many of which are run by other startups hawking their own apps. For some industry observers and market analysts, Facebook’s reliance on money from other app companies looks like the making of an unsustainable monoculture — not a lasting business, but something spun up in the heady froth of a venture capital smoothie.
“There are now a number of revenue streams that are being driven by venture dollars,” Bill Gurley, a prominent venture capitalist who has been warning of a tech bubble, said recently in an onstage interview at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. “Facebook and a little bit of Twitter’s revenues are now coming heavily from mobile downloads. These are ads for, like, Game of War with Kate Upton. Those ads are now an increasing percentage of their revenue, and they’re being spent by these excessive venture dollars.”
DOOMED LIKE YAHOO?
The notion that Facebook and other social networks will suffer most deeply when the bubble bursts sounds plausible because it rehashes the last tech boom and bust, when advertising revenue run-ups at huge Web portals (remember those?) turned out to be funded mainly by venture capital investments. In 2001, revenue at Yahoo — the largest portal, and something like the Facebook of its time — plummeted almost US$400 million when startups stopped spending during the bust. Yahoo has never recovered its former glory. Could Facebook face the same fate?
Probably not — or not yet, at least. On closer inspection, the theory that Facebook’s growth depends on unsustainable venture capital is mostly overblown, another strain of Facebook Second Guessing Syndrome. It’s a story that misses important facts about Facebook’s advertising business. For one thing, as Facebook’s executives have repeatedly pointed out, ads from app companies make up a small percentage of the company’s overall business. Most of the social network’s revenue comes from video ads and ads for large brands.
The theory also misses two other points. Not all these ads are coming from unproved startups. And the ads are set to be adopted more widely because they actually work.
According to several app makers and observers of the industry, the ads are tremendously effective at leading paying customers to new apps. It’s the effort to reach these paying customers — and not venture funding — that is often the reason for all the money pouring into ads for apps.
App-pushing ads are known in the industry as app-install ads. They appear in your Facebook News Feed or Twitter stream and encourage you to download apps from companies that make mobile games and e-commerce and travel services; they also come from big brands like Target and Chase. When you tap the ad, you are sent to Apple or Google’s app store. Facebook and Twitter are paid for each click according to prices set by an online bidding process.
GROWING APP MARKET
According to Cathy Boyle, an analyst at eMarketer, a research firm that studies the online advertising business, the market for app-install ads is growing rapidly. Boyle estimates that in the US, app companies spent US$1.67 billion on install ads in 2014. She expects that number to grow 80 percent this year, to about US$3 billion. The market for app-install ads is growing faster than just about any other digital advertising category, Boyle said, but it is still relatively small. In 2015, these ads will account for about 10 percent of the US mobile ad market, according to eMarketer.
Facebook and Twitter would not specify the proportion of their revenue that comes from app ads, but both have described it as far from the majority of their business. “We talk about our mobile ad business growing — mobile app ads are a small part of that, growing in line with our total business,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said in a call with investors in October.
One reason spending on these ads is growing is that the ads solve a problem faced both by businesses that make apps and by users who want apps: App stores are becoming ever more crowded, and it is increasingly difficult for new apps to find an audience. In this way, apps for ads on social networks perform the same function as the highly successful ads for Web sites that Google runs alongside its search results — they show people something that they might click on and pay for, based on a combination of users’ interests and a business’ willingness to pay.
App ads are also like search ads in that they are highly measurable. Marketers can target specific types of customers whom they want to present with an ad for a certain app, and they can also track exactly how much money they make from customers they get through an app ad. By contrast, the advertising boom that doomed the portal industry was not built on measurable ads. Those were mostly Web banner ads, whose effectiveness has always been something of a leap of faith.
Acquiring new customers through app ads is “100 percent based on data,” said Bernard Kim, senior vice president for social and mobile publishing at the video game developer Electronic Arts. “We have the ability to track the players that we get through these networks very carefully, and we know what the profitability looks like on a player, so these ads are a very effective tool for us to bring in the players that we want to engage with our titles.”
Skeptics remain. One tech investor who has been critical of these ads pointed out that startups are often very bad at calculating the long-term value of new customers. This miscalculation often causes them to overspend on marketing. Several recent venture-funded flops, including Groupon and Fab.com, were tripped up by huge marketing spending that did not lead to lucrative long-term customers.
If many of today’s money-burning, venture-funded app companies — Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and many more — are also overestimating the value of each new customer, could they wake up one day to find they’re spending too much on app ads?
Facebook does not think so. In an interview, Andrew Bosworth, the company’s vice president for advertising, argued that startups today were more disciplined than in the recent past, with many analyzing not just how much they’re spending to get new users but also whether those people are actually buying stuff. “That’s been the big shift. The big venture capital-backed Fab.coms of the world spent on acquisition but couldn’t actually convert,” he said. But when today’s startups look at these ads, “They’re asking, ‘Can you put a dollar in and get two dollars out?’ If you can, you spend, and if you can’t, you don’t.”
Sure, Bosworth’s argument is a variation of “this time is different,” which is the stock defense during every boom. But he added that Facebook wasn’t counting on app ads for its long-term survival. “I think this will be a stable ongoing market,” Bosworth said. “I think it will plateau at some point in terms of share, as smartphone growth plateaus. I don’t think it will shrink dramatically, but I just think there will come a point where it plateaus.”
Until this summer, when the idea of hiking the length of the island first occurred to me, I didn’t even know that Cijin (旗津) had been a peninsula until 1967. That’s when diggers and dredgers severed Cijin from Taiwan’s “mainland,” because the authorities wished to create a southern entrance to Kaohsiung’s fast expanding port. The island is just under 9km long, but a bit of research quickly convinced me that a south-to-north trek wasn’t a good idea. The southern third of Cijin is dominated by container-lifting cranes, warehouses and other facilities off-limits to the public. Dunhe Street (敦和街) forms the boundary between
As if the climbs and views and snacks and companions of cycling in Taiwan aren’t sufficient, the GPS-generation of route-planners are now using apps such as Strava and Endomondo to create works of art as they ride. One such is nicknamed the Dove Road of Sijhih (汐鴿路), a 25km ride that follows the riverside bike path from the Nangang-Neihu Bridge (南湖橋) to New Taipei City’s Sijhih District (汐止), climbs around 400m up the Sijhih-Shiding Road (汐碇路), before dropping back down past Academia Sinica to generate a very dove-like pattern. Originally called Kippanas by indigenous Ketagalan people and transliterated into Hoklo (more commonly
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a way urban households can obtain healthy produce, while helping to build a more sustainable farming sector in Taiwan. King Hsin-i’s (金欣儀) transformation from advertising copywriter to social entrepreneur began in 2008, when she visited a rice farmer who practiced pesticide-free agriculture. “He explained that we have to leave space for other species. At the same time, I realized that while big companies have budgets to spread their messages, farmers have few chances to tell the public about their beautiful concepts,” she recalls. Inspired, she quit her job and traveled throughout rural Taiwan for a year. King went
If ever there was a reason to be inside on Mid-Autumn Festival, even for just an hour or so, while still celebrating the natural world, Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍) has provided one with his first full-length work for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) as artistic director, Sounding Light (定光). Judging by the excerpt performed for the press last week, Cheng shows he can be just as minimalistic as his mentor, troupe founder Lin Hwai-min (林懷民), while still forging his own unique path. Just as he did with last year’s Lunar Halo (毛月亮), his final work as director of Cloud Gate 2 (雲門2), Cheng