To Facebook's Chagrin, Time Spent Online Doesn't Equal Money -- Yet

Consumers Spend Days on Social Network, But Advertisers Still Spend Bulk of Dollars on Google

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It's the stat that filled a million PowerPoints, launched thousands of startups and dashed almost as many hopes: the hockey stick charting consumer growth of the internet -- and the presumed shift of ad dollars along with it.

The $140 billion domestic ad dollars left in TV, print and other old media represent opportunity to digital players. But after 15 years of experience, it's clear that argument comes with one, huge caveat: Ad dollars do eventually follow users, but not on any particular timeframe and not necessarily proportionately.

That could be a wakeup call for Facebook and its investors. Facebook commands 13% of time spent on the internet in the U.S., according to ComScore -- more than Google (including YouTube) at 11% or Yahoo at 7.9%. Yet its 2011 ad revenue was just $3.1 billion, in line with what Yahoo made from advertising in 2011, and a fraction of Google's $36 billion.

What gives? Facebook's ad model is nascent, its utility to brand advertisers mostly still unproven, and no one really knows how to measure effectiveness on Facebook beyond valuing a "like," a share or a click-through. Yet that massive time-spent figure, not to mention the incredible trove of data both harvested by Facebook as well as handed over by users, means there's upside. The question is how much.

Source: ComScore
Source: ComScore

The opportunity represented for Facebook in the gap between time spent and ad spending was forcefully argued by Needham analyst Laura Martin, who helped stop Facebook's stock-price slide when she slapped a "buy" rating on the stock. "We believe that Facebook should have higher revenue than Google over time because the number of users is about the same but the average time spent on Facebook is 14 minutes per day, which is nearly three times's five minutes per person per day," she wrote in a report.

While the time-spent argument makes directional sense, it doesn't tell you how many dollars will shift or in what time frame. Kleiner Perkins principal Mary Meeker's latest "State of the Internet" report shows the gap between percentage of time and what would be the equivalent percentage of ad dollars spent on the web and mobile is worth about $20 billion in the U.S. alone.

But this assumes that all media and the time spent with them are equal in terms of the impact on the consumer and that marketers should use and value them in the same way. "It's valuable but very deceiving in that it understates the differences between platforms," said Simulmedia CEO Dave Morgan.

In fact, the shift of dollars to attention will prove less linear and predictable for Facebook than for online display, which basically transplanted an approximation of the print ad model to the web -- or video, which is a transplant of TV's model. Facebook's audience is huge and valuable, but there's no similar offline corollary. Take GM, which revealed it spends just a quarter of its Facebook budget on Facebook advertising, an expenditure it apparently feels it can do without.

"It's risky for any company that is used to spending its marketing dollars in a certain way to change it dramatically and quickly without being sure what the effect is going to be," said ComScore Chairman Gian Fulgoni.

None of this means Facebook won't figure it out, or that brands won't double down on advertising to support their content. But it does weaken the argument that just because Facebook commands an increasing share of audience attention, it should command equal share of ad dollars.

The good news for Facebook is that the vast majority of unshifted advertising is focused on brand advertising, the enormous sums that the biggest advertisers spend to change people's preferences. This kind of advertising appears to be Facebook's strength over, say, direct-response metrics such as clicks and likes.

Even better news is that advertising is just one revenue opportunity; others include e-commerce, payments, virtual goods or even content-payment services. When your phone becomes a wallet, Facebook has a chance to win there, too.

Ad dollars may shift. They may not. In the end, it may not matter.

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