Business in the Age of COVID-19: Facebook is experiencing record usage, but will advertisers spend during spread of coronavirus?

Business in the Age of COVID-19: Facebook is experiencing record usage, but will advertisers spend during spread of coronavirus?

20 Apr    Finance News

This article is part of a series tracking the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on major businesses, and will be updated. It was originally published on April 6.

The COVID-19 pandemic is sending users to Facebook Inc.’s social-networking, messaging and live-streaming platforms in record numbers, but that does not automatically mean more money for Facebook.

Facebook US:FB finds itself in a delicate position with the onslaught of the deadly outbreak: As the coronavirus forces more people indoors and wreaks havoc on the economy, it is driving record use on the social network. For instance, daily audio and video calls on WhatsApp and Messenger doubled as the virus spread, reaching levels normally seen only on New Year’s Eve, Facebook Chief Mark Executive Zuckerberg said in a March 18 conference call with reporters.

“In a time of disaster, people rely more on social services … we are seeing surges in traffic, especially in areas most affected,” Zuckerberg said during the conference call. “People want to stay connected while being asked to maintain social distancing and eliminate loneliness.”

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Facebook needs advertisers to pay to find those users, however, as the company spelled out a week later. Its messaging platforms are largely not revenue-producers, and ad spending has been gutted in large part by cutbacks among major marketers like travel websites. About 30% of Facebook’s ad revenue comes from travel and films, while many of its advertisers are small businesses likely to slice spending. The postponement until Nov. 25 of the new James Bond movie, “No Time To Die,” will cost Facebook $50 million alone, Needham & Co. analyst Laura Martin said.

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Beyond the large advertisers, eMarketer senior analyst Jasmine Enberg pointed out that a large chunk of Facebook advertisers are small businesses most at risk during the expected COVID-19 economic slowdown.

”In the short term, [Facebook] and Google will suffer losses because of their reliance on small businesses that advertise,” eMarketer senior analyst Jasmine Enberg told MarketWatch. “[Small businesses] will pull back ad spend. In the longer term (full year), they are in a much better position than smaller media companies for advertising.”

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The long-term trend favors Facebook and Alphabet’s US:GOOGL US:GOOG Google over Twitter Inc. US:TWTR and Snap Inc. US:SNAP , she said.

EMarketer has reduced its estimate on total media ad spending world-wide this year to $691.7 billion, up 7% from 2019. In a forecast in October, it forecast a 7.4% jump to $712.02 billion this year. With the current fluidity in news, eMarketer’s estimate could change, Enberg acknowledged.

Facebook reports its fiscal first-quarter results on April 29.

What the numbers are saying

Revenue: Average analyst expectations for the first quarter were $18.56 billion at the end of 2019, but declined to $17.99 billion as of April 6. Estimates for advertising, which accounts for nearly all of Facebook’s sales, declined from $18.37 billion to $17.98 billion in that time period, according to FactSet. For the full year, FactSet expects revenue of $80.71 billion, nearly all of it from mobile advertising.

Earnings: Average analyst expectations from FactSet were $1.95 per share at the end of 2019. As of April 6, they were $1.85 per share. For the full year, analysts expect earnings of $8.34 a share.

Stock movement: During the first three months of 2020, shares tanked 19%. Facebook stock was sailing at $223.23 on Jan. 29; by March 16, it had sunk 35% to $146.01. Meanwhile, the S&P 500 US:SPX has fallen 18% this year.

What the company is saying

April 16: In a post on his Facebook profile, Zuckerberg said the company was canceling “any large physical events we had planned with 50 or more people through June 2021. Some of these we will hold as virtual events instead and we’ll share more details on that soon. Similarly, we’re extending our policy of no business travel through at least June of this year as well.”

March 30: Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, chatted with California Gov. Gavin Newsom about the state’s response to COVID-19. On March 19, Zuckerberg spoke with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, on Facebook Live. A day earlier, Zuckerberg spoke expansively on COVID-19 during an hour-long conference call with reporters.

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“The top priority and focus for us has been making sure people can get access to good authoritative information from trusted health sources,” Zuckerberg said in introducing the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Information Center, which appears at the top of users’ News Feeds.

March 24:An ominous company blog post spelled out Facebook’s quandary. While usage has skyrocketed in countries hardest hit by COVID-19, those same countries will contribute to an online-advertising pullback that undercuts results.

First, the good news. The social-networking giant said total messaging across the platform’s services in the previous month had increased 50% in countries ravaged by the virus, with video messaging on Messenger and WhatsApp more than doubling. In Italy, time spent on Facebook has soared 70% since it was hard hit by the crisis.

However, the company warned it is not immune from an online-advertising pullback by many of its customers, especially small businesses.

March 18: The health crisis has prompted several dramatic corporate actions at Facebook, Zuckerberg revealed in a conference call. Nearly all of the company’s approximately 45,000 employees — including Zuckerberg — are working from home. (Exceptions are those in critical functions such as security and server maintenance.)

Contractors, including content moderators, work from home. “We’re in the process of moving the most sensitive content like suicide and self-harm prevention, child exploitation, and terrorism to full-time employees,” Zuckerberg said. “I am personally concerned that self-isolation will increase suicide and self-harm.” He added that all employees, including contractors, will be paid in full indefinitely.

What analysts are saying

• Facebook’s weakening ad business in regions heavily impacted by COVID-19 prompted Needham to lower its 2020 and 2021 estimates for Facebook. “(A)dded engagement (time spent viewing) will be offset by a sharp advertising demand downdraft from large categories of digital advertising such as travel (6% to 8% of advertising volume), entertainment (5%), small offline retailers and consumer products companies.” — Needham analyst Laura Martin on March 25 , as she maintained a hold rating but did not offer a price target.

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• According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus website, countries most afflicted by COVID-19 are China, the largest countries in Europe, the U.S., Iran, and South Korea. The U.S. (including Canada) and Europe accounted for 51% of Facebook’s advertising revenue last quarter, “so clearly the majority of FB’s advertising revenue is being pressured currently.” — FBN Securities analyst Shebly Seyrafi on March 25, maintaining an outperform rating and raising the price target to $220 from $245.

FBN reduced its earnings per share estimate to $1.79 from $2.04, and now models Facebook revenue to grow 16% to 17% in fiscal 2020, down from more than 20% previously.

• Use of social media and search is healthy as more people spend more time online, but Facebook faces exposure to ad cuts among small businesses and the travel industry. Baird sliced Facebook’s price target to $200 from $230, and lowered its annual revenue estimate to $84.1 billion from $85.6 billion. It maintains an outperform rating on the stock. — Baird Equity Research analyst Colin Sebastian on March 17, maintaining an outperform rating and price target of $200.

• Facebook has especially felt the pinch on cost-per-click (CPC), the amount an advertiser pays a publisher for every click on an ad and a key determinant in how much Facebook charge brands to show their ads on Facebook’s digital properties. Brands are posting more organic content and less paid content because of economic uncertainty, according to an analysis by Socialbakers of about 2.4 million Facebook posts from 40,563 brand profiles world-wide from Jan. 1 through March 15. Facebook’s CPC in North America has been halved to 32 cents in mid-March from 64 cents in December. In Western Europe, its CPC plunged to 20 cents from 43 cents over the same time frame. — Socialbakers CEO Yuval Ben-Itzhak, on March 24.

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