Facebook's First Earnings Report Could Be a Huge Disappointment

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Facebook (NAS: FB) may not enjoy the 8.7% sequential revenue growth most analysts say it will when the company reports second-quarter results later this month. History says sales could instead fall by 3% or more.

Wait. What?
I'll understand if that raises some eyebrows. Those of you who've read my columns for a while know I'm generally positive on Facebook. You also know I'm also encouraged by a budding ad platform called Facebook Exchange, which uses browsing data to make display advertising more targeted.

So when fellow financial writer Erik Sherman of CBS Money Watch found that the social network was attracting even fewer unique visitors per month than had been initially reported by Reuters, I was curious but not overly concerned. Instead, in an interview, I promised to take a closer look at Facebook's growth strategy before passing judgment.


Well, Fool, I've run the numbers. They aren't good:

Quarter

Total Revenue

Sequential Growth

Average Unique Visitors

Sequential Growth

Q1 2012$1,058 million(6.5%)160.392 million(2.69%)
Q4 2011$1,131 million18.6%164.831 million1.44%
Q3 2011$954 million6.6%162.495 millionNot calculated

Sources: SEC filings, comScore, and TMF estimate.

Predicting underperformance
While it's not perfectly symmetrical, and we're very early in the public history of Facebook, there appears to be a correlation between unique visitors and revenue growth. More eyes equal more dollars, just as it is with its main digital-advertising rival: Google (NAS: GOOG) .

Through the first two months of the current quarter, comScore data shows that Facebook was attracting 158.354 million unique visitors per month. What happens if those figures hold? Average visitors would decline about 1.3%. Not good. As you can see, the last time UVs declined sequentially, the social network saw revenue fall more than 6%.

This time, a 3% drop seems more likely. Why? Again, refer to the math in the table. Facebook seems to be on track for a 1.3% sequential decline in unique visitors during Q2. That's about half the decline the social network saw in the first quarter, when revenue declined by 6%.

A 3% drop would keep with the limited amount of historical data we have to this point, which means Wall Street's Q2 projection could be off by double digits. Traders would crush the stock in a sell-off.

Why you might not want to cut and run ... yet
To be fair, there's an important bright spot in that table. While both UVs and revenue declined from Q4 to Q1, a little math shows that Facebook did substantially better at generating revenue per visitor in Q1 than Q3, and nearly as well as in Q4:

Quarter

Total Revenue

Average Unique Visitors

Revenue Per Visitor

Q1 2012$1,058 million160.392 million$6.60
Q4 2011$1,131 million164.831 million$6.86
Q3 2011$954 million162.495 million$5.87

Sources: SEC filings, comScore, and TMF estimate.

Here's why this matters. Facebook skeptics have long argued that Facebook's weakness is an unproven ability to generate more revenue per active user (REVPAU). So while Zynga (NAS: ZNGA) has seen overall growth in the number of users playing its games, far too many burn out on Facebook and the apps connected to it. REVPAU, in response, goes nowhere.

Or at least that's the theory espoused by those who see Facebook as just another Groupon (NAS: GRPN) , which relies on generous merchants and a bottomless pit of new customers for growth.

The reality is more encouraging. As the second table shows, revenue per visitor is up versus six months ago. We can probably expect more volatility in future quarters, but that's also due to the nature of participating in (and, to a large degree, shaping) nascent markets.

You have a friend request waiting
Does that make Facebook a Rule Breaker? Possibly. Either way, it pays to study disruptive technologies such as social media, since, over time, the market rewards those that lead the rebellions. These are the sorts of companies that we look for in our Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter service. Want in? Check out a 30-day trial subscription. If that's not up your alley just yet, you can still check out a free special report showing you how to invest in the next trillion-dollar revolution.

At the time this article was published Fool contributorTim Beyersis a member of theMotley Fool Rule Breakersstock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He owned shares of Google at the time of publication. Check out Tim'sWeb home,portfolio holdings, andFoolish writings, or connect with him onGoogle+or Twitter, where he goes by@milehighfool. You can also get his insightsdelivered directly to your RSS reader.The Motley Fool owns shares of Facebook and Google.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Google. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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