Has Facebook's Ship Already Sailed?

While fortunes are forever changing for Web companies, analysts are now willing to assert that Facebook missed the boat when it refused to be acquired last year.

"They're not going to see that kind of money again," said Jupiter Media analyst Emily Riley at an industry event on Monday.

Riley, of course, was referring to Yahoo's effort to buy the thriving social network for around $1 billion--a deal that never materialized because Facebook's young founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly wanted to grow the company independently.

"Boy, did he miss a big opportunity," mused David Rittenhouse, group planning director at neo@Ogilvy, at the same event Monday.

And while Yahoo is now said to be courting another social network, Bebo, for $1 billion, analysts identify two major changes which could make it harder for community sites to strike it rich in the future.

First, industry eyes have now switched their focus from social networks to ad networks following a string of acquisitions sparked by Google's agreement to buy DoubleClick for $3.1 billion last month. (That deal now looks quaint next to last week's deal from Microsoft to buy aQuantive for a staggering $6 billion.)



"The buzz over social networks has moved on now to ad networks," said Riley.

Seconding the notion, Gartner analyst Andrew Frank said: "I think there's definitely a sense that the market is focused somewhere else."

The other reason social networks face an increasingly uncertain future is a growing industry-wide suspicion that such sites may never--relatively speaking--become strong revenue drivers.

"There's now a considerable, and I'd say legitimate, suspicion of that," Frank said. "I think there's strong evidence that however one makes money [from social networks], it's not as easy as translating eyeballs into CPMs."

Facebook has grown three times as fast as MySpace in the past year, according to Nielsen//NetRatings, even though its 14.4 million monthly visitors still trail MySpace's 57 million.

But, while sites like MySpace and Facebook have shown a preternatural ability to attract huge communities, they have yet to reflect their popularity in dollars earned.

"The business strategy has been getting an audience, then getting acquired," joked neo@Ogilvy's Rittenhouse. Riley, however, is confident that a select few social networks will eventually transform themselves into money-making machines.

"They're going to have to," she said. "Otherwise they won't survive."

In that vein, Facebook now plans to become more like a Web portal by hosting a wide range of content within its network, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

This service would have a social component so that online retailers and content owners will encourage Facebook members to send content or product recommendations to their network of friends. It is not clear what financial agreements Facebook would make with these new partners. Facebook did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

Whether or not they appeal to potential suitors, social startups can take heart in the fact that there's still money to be made. Indeed, eMarketer estimated earlier this year that social ad spending will reach $865 million this year, and nearly $2.2 billion in 2010.

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