Meta plunges as Facebook users stall, forecast falls short

Facebook MAU growth stalls.
Image: Bloomberg

Facebook’s user growth faltered in the latest quarter, the first stagnation in the social network’s history, stoking concern that Meta Platforms’s flagship product and core advertising moneymaker has plateaued after years of consistent gains.

The company also gave a disappointing sales forecast for the current period, and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that Meta is facing serious competition for user time and attention, particularly from viral video-sharing app TikTok. The dour outlook and stalled user momentum sent shares down as much as 24% in extended trading, a striking decline for a stock that has posted gains in every year but one since its 2012 IPO.

Zuckerberg said Meta’s rival to TikTok, Reels, is growing quickly, but monetisation has been slow, and he asked investors for patience as the product ramps up.

“Over time we think that there is potential for a tremendous amount of overall engagement growth” with Reels, he said on a conference call Wednesday. “We think it’s definitely the right thing to lean into this and push as hard to grow Reels as quickly as possible and not hold on the brakes at all, even though it may create some near-term slower growth than we would have wanted.”

The misses come at a critical juncture for the company, which is fighting regulatory battles on multiple fronts and also trying to justify a costly shift in corporate strategy to bet on the metaverse, Zuckerberg’s vision for an immersive internet that may take years to realise. For the better part of a decade, it has seemed like Facebook would never stop growing. Now young users — the future consumers of its advertising — are choosing platforms like TikTok and Google’s YouTube for entertainment and community instead.

Rarely, if ever, has Meta been confronted by so many substantial threats at the same time. Aside from user growth woes and intensifying competition, Meta is also contending with a crackdown on targeted advertising by Apple Inc., which it said may trim $10 billion in revenue this year, and cutbacks by advertisers that are paring budgets because of rising costs and supply chain disruptions.

The company, which changed its name to Meta last year to indicate its future direction, also said it will be taking on the META stock ticker in the first half of the year. Shares plunged as low as $244 in late trading, after closing at $323 in New York. The stock, which currently trades under the ticker FB, had declined 4% so far this year through Wednesday’s close.

Meta’s Reality Labs division, which includes the company’s investments in the metaverse and virtual reality, reported an operating loss of $3.3 billion for the fourth quarter, as the company disclosed its contribution for the first time.

On the company’s call, Zuckerberg was asked when parts of the metaverse will begin to arrive for users. He replied that some aspects — like digital avatars — are already here. He also reminded analysts that while the metaverse will be best experienced using a virtual or augmented-reality headset, people will still be able to access the digital environment through Meta’s existing apps, like Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook reported 2.91 billion monthly users in the fourth quarter, flat compared with the prior period. The main app’s daily active users in North America — the company’s most lucrative market — declined slightly from 196 million to 195 million users.

Meta said revenue in the current period will be $27 billion to $29 billion, compared with the $30.3 billion analysts estimated on average. Changes to Apple’s mobile software that require user permission to gather data for ad tracking are significantly crimping revenue by limited targeted advertising, Meta said.

Sales are also taking a hit because Meta doesn’t make as much money from Reels video clips as it does from other products, like News Feed and Stories. Still, executives painted an optimistic picture, saying Reels will one day make as much money as those other products.

Net income in the fourth quarter was $10.3 billion, or $3.67 a share, Meta said, falling short of the $3.84 per share analysts projected. Revenue was $33.67 billion, compared with the $33.43 billion average estimate.

Wednesday’s earnings report was the company’s first since changing its corporate name from Facebook late last year. When Meta announced the change, the move was criticised for being a distraction from the many problems Facebook has been asked by regulators to fix with its existing networks. But it’s not just branding — resources and talent within Facebook have shifted to the new focus. Meta had said in October that it would see a $10 billion reduction in operating profit for the year because of investments in Reality Labs.

What Bloomberg Intelligence Says:

“The new disclosure of the Reality Labs segment’s operating loss of $10.2 billion for 2021 points to at least a 10 percentage-point drag on overall operating margin, which could get worse in the near to medium term.” –Mandeep Singh, BI senior technology industry analyst

It was also the first financial report since Zuckerberg declared that attracting young people — 18- to 29-year-olds — was the company’s new “North Star.” The company hasn’t said how it plans to disclose its progress toward that goal, and there was little shared Wednesday to address this new push besides a heightened focus on Reels. Young people in particular have been drawn to apps such as ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok and Snap’s Snapchat, raising concerns within Meta. That was spotlighted by internal research and communications released by whistle-blower Frances Haugen last year, a trove of documents known as the Facebook Papers.

Meta doesn’t regularly break down users by age. It also doesn’t say how many people use Instagram or messaging service WhatsApp, or how much revenue those properties generate.

The company gets about 97% of its revenue from advertising on its social platforms. It warned again about the impact of recent changes to Apple’s iOS software for iPhones, which requires that companies like Meta ask users for explicit permission to gather data about them. Early estimates show that most users decline this tracking, which makes targeted advertising — Facebook’s main selling point to businesses — harder.

“We believe the impact of iOS overall is a headwind on our business in 2022, on the order of $10 billion,” chief financial officer David Wehner said on the conference call.

Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said the Menlo Park, California-based company is working on ways to help advertisers target people with messages that require less personal data.

“There are also a lot of things that small businesses and large businesses can do to take advantage of the many targeting and measurement tools we have,” Sandberg said on the call.

© 2022 Bloomberg

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