Can Social-Networking Sites Make Money?

Nevertheless, the sites seem largely incapable of generating revenues commensurate with their popularity.

Last year, Microsoft bought a 1.6 percent stake in Facebook for $240 million, giving the company a dubious valuation of $15 billion. But Facebook is likely to lose $150 million this year, according to a January conference call heard by Kara Swisher of All Things Digital, a Wall Street Journal-affiliated site devoted to "news, analysis, and opinion about the digital revolution." That's based on projected earnings--before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization--of $50 million and an expected $200 million in capital expenses, including new servers.

Revenues for MySpace parent Fox Interactive Media fell $100 million short of predictions this year, apparently leading to the dismissal of the chief revenue officer. And Google met with disappointment after paying $900 million in 2006 to get a piece of MySpace's traffic, buying the right to deliver ads for three years against keywords entered on the networking site. "I don't think we have the killer best way to advertise and monetize social networks yet," said Google cofounder Sergey Brin in a call with investors after Google announced its fourth-quarter 2007 results.

Ning does not release numbers about ad sales. All Bianchini will say is, "The number of networks we have is our leading indicator." If Ning's experience is anything like MySpace's and Facebook's, its leading indicator just indicates a lot of users.

Lookery, an advertising network that buys ad space on Facebook in bulk, has been reselling that space at 13 cents per thousand times an ad is served, or in ad industry jargon, at a $0.13 cost per mille (CPM). Facebook sets a minimum CPM of $0.15 for its "social ads," which allow advertisers to target ads to Facebook users and groups according to characteristics like location and age. And over the last year, MySpace has lowered its banner-ad rate from a CPM of $3.25 to one of less than $2. By way of comparison, a banner on ­Mashable, a blog covering the world of social networking, has a CPM of $7 to $33, depending on its size. Websites with clearly defined audiences of executives and technologists who purchase corporate products and services, such as TechnologyReview.com, do best of all. Technology Review's site boasts a CPM of $70.

But even low rates haven't been enough to lure advertisers and media buyers to social networking. "A lot of advertisers are very hesitant to get into MySpace," says Anthony Acquisti, who oversees strategy for emerging media at OMD, an advertising agency in New York. "We've even flat-out told interested brands, 'You don't want to be there.'"

Why not? The problems with social-network advertising revolve around three main issues: attention, privacy, and content.

Attention Deficit

In the last week of April, around 400 people who spend their days trying to figure out how to make money in social networking gathered at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The conference went by the not very catchy name of EconSM, short for Economics of Social Media.

The point of the conference was clear enough. As Kara Swisher, one of the panel moderators, joked on her blog: "I'm in search of the elusive profit, which I don't think I'm going to find."

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