How Do Social Media Companies Make Money?

So far in 2014, we’ve seen Facebook stock (Nasdaq: FB) continue its dramatic share price rebound, Twitter stock (NYSE: TWTR) plunge more than 40%, and two new social media IPOs debut – GrubHub (NYSE: GRUB) and Weibo (Nasdaq ADR: WB) – but have you ever wondered, how do social media companies make money?

We asked Money Morning E-Commerce Director Bret Holmes to give us the scoop. Part of Holmes’ job is to utilize web advertising via social media platforms to best market Money Morning. As a result, he’s on top of what’s going on inside of today’s social media giants.

Holmes said the key to unlocking value for social media companies is successful advertising models.

“Social media companies are legitimate advertising websites, no different than, say, Google or Yahoo. The same way Google made its money is the same way Twitter and Facebook will make their money,” Holmes explained.

And web advertising via social media is a market that’s growing at a staggering rate.

A 2013 Nielsen report showed that 89% of advertisers use free social media advertising and 75% use paid social media advertising. The report also highlighted that 64% of advertisers expected they’d increase their paid social media advertising budgets over the course of 2013. On May 12, BIA/Kelsey released its U.S. Social Local Media report. The research firm projected that total U.S. social media advertising revenue will grow from $5.1 billion in 2013 to $15 billion in 2018, for a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 24%.

That means a lot of opportunity for social media companies to make major money.

The trick for social media companies looking to profit as ad platforms is to find the best way to insert advertising into the user’s experience without impacting the user in a negative way.

And that advertising methodology is hugely important to these companies’ revenue growth.

The same BIA/Kelseyreport in May revealed that the greatest year-over-year jump in social media ad revenue ever has been seen this year. It’s grown from $5.1 billion in 2013 to $8.4 billion, which the firm largely attributes to a surge in both native and mobile advertising. It estimates that social mobile revenue alone is projected at 38.3% CAGR.

Exemplary of the profitability of this kind of social media advertising growth is Facebook. In late April, Facebook announced that its mobile ads accounted for 59% of its second quarter ad revenue, up from approximately 30% of ad revenue in the first quarter of 2013. Mobile ad revenue alone came in at a mammoth $2.265 billion for the quarter.

This kind of advertising success is tied directly into a social media company’s bottom line – and its profitability for investors.

To learn how to gauge which companies will succeed, here’s how social media advertising actually works…

How Social Media Companies Make Money: A Lesson from Facebook

We’ll use Facebook as an example.

The Facebook IPO was an unmitigated disaster. It lost over half of its value within six months of listing, and was priced at 107 times trailing 12-month earnings, making it pricier than 99% of all companies in the S&P 500 at the time.

But boy did it rebound.

From July through September 2013, the Facebook stock price more than doubled. Shares are up more than 150% over the past 12 months, and 15% so far in 2014. As of July 8, FB stock traded at $62.60 – putting it $24.60 over its IPO price of $38.

It was advertising that undoubtedly turned the tides for Facebook.

“Facebook has gotten really good at advertising. It’s new, it’s inexpensive, and it’s smartly done,” Holmes said. “When Google first started, it wasn’t good at advertising, and look at them now. Facebook is going to be a success story.”

Here is what Facebook did to unlock its value and become what Holmes described as “the most advantageously competitive product on the market for advertisers, hands down”…

Originally, Facebook started with space ads. Then, it added self-promoting individuals’ or a company’s Facebook page. But things were still sluggish.

However, around the start of 2013, Facebook developed a new advertising format. They’re technically referred to as native social ads – ads that are seamlessly integrated into the social media’s platform. BIA/Kelsey projects social media native revenue as the fastest-growing social media advertising method at a 38.6% CAGR by 2018.

“Facebook has integrated in-stream ads to the user experience. Response rates are high and advertisers will always chase the least expensive ad with the best response. It works because it’s new and cheap,” said Holmes.

In-stream ads can be videos. For instance, a commercial will appear before the user may watch an Internet video. The in-stream video ad will typically last 15-30 seconds.

On a social media site like Facebook, which has real-time update feeds, in-stream ads can be inserted into a streaming feed. So, for example, the user scrolls through the News Feed to see what friends and family are up to, and in-stream ads are peppered into the Feed.

By far the largest social network, FB’s Q2 2014 ad revenue reached $2.27 billion – an 82% increase from the same quarter last year. Revenue for the full year 2013 was $7.87 billion, a 55% gain year over year.

“For the first time in 2013, Facebook let advertisers access FBX, an ad exchange where you can customize your own ads,” explained Holmes. “Now we can glean information and better target our audience. We can also advertise on mobile now.”

The ad model is helping Facebook monetize its massive 1.28 billion monthly active users who increasingly access the site via mobile devices. Facebook revealed it has more than 1 million advertisers in total as of the start of 2014.

And to top it all off, Facebook continuously improves its method to provide performance-based analytics that are invaluable to advertisers.

Watching Facebook’s advertising Cinderella story shows us a great deal about how advertising makes money for social media companies.

One company that hasn’t yet found a way to make money on its user base is Twitter – but it’s working on it.

In a troubling Q1 2014 earnings report, Twitter revealed that monthly active users (MAUs) were lackluster, with only a 6% gain since last quarter. And the previous quarter saw only a 3% growth in MAUs. The report also showed that TWTR’s net loss grew by more than $100 million. Twitter stock fell more than 8% that day, and it’s down nearly 17% since its Nov. 8 initial public offering (IPO).

In an effort to improve its numbers, Twitter is in the process of rolling out 15 types of new ads aimed at e-commerce companies and mobile game developers, according to The Wall Street Journal.

But the key here is the addition of a mobile-app install unit. That means an ad for a game, for example, includes a button that takes users directly to an app store where they can buy it.
Facebook has included this tool since late 2012 – and in its most recent quarter, mobile in-app install units represented half of the company’s revenue.

Another way Twitter has been trying to boost ad revenue is through e-commerce. In early May, it built in a way to send impulse-buy ads to people based on what they are tweeting about. In doing so, TWTR partnered with Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) to let users type #AmazonCart to respond to tweets that include an Amazon link – and put the item directly in their cart.

If Twitter is able to increase its user base and find successful ways to monetize it via ads, the stock could pull a Facebook-like turnaround.

For more on what Twitter has recently done to turn itself around, read here about its latest major management shake up…