Facebook earnings: What to listen for

Facebook is due to report its earnings Thursday, marking the first time that the company shares its financial information since its much-hyped initial public offering in May.

The social network’s stock has been fluctuating since its debut. But it hasn’t managed to rise to its original $38 share price as the company faces questions about how much the ads it depends on for the bulk of its revenue actually bring in.

Ad revenue is a key focus for those concerned about whether Facebook can sustain itself long-term as an ad-supported business.

The effectiveness of Facebook ads has been under the gun, particularly after General Motors decided to drop its paid advertising on the network just days ahead of the company’s debut on the stock market. Studies on the effectiveness of Facebook advertising overall have varied, and it will depend on Facebook itself to step in and direct the conversation about how well it’s serving users and marketers without alienating either.

Another question for the social network giant: How will it manage its shift to mobile? Facebook Chief Executive and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg told Bloomberg at the Sun Valley media conference recently that he believes that figuring out a way to make Facebook appealing on mobile devices is the company’s biggest challenge.

With less screen space to work with, Facebook must give users the full social experience on smartphones and tablets without making the presentation too crowded. Ads also come into play here — users won’t be happy, for example, if their small screens are taken up by marketing space. But advertisers won’t be happy if the network’s user base continues to rely on mobile if Facebook has no clear strategy for making money off the switch. Shareholders, too, will be watching.

Facebook observers also are anticipating the earnings call to see who will speak for the company and get a read on how much Zuckerberg is looking to please investors. The young CEO faced a lot of criticism for his seeming nonchalance about taking the company public and for sending other executives, such as Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, to talk with Wall Street. Zuckerberg was also dinged for appearing at the road show presentation in a hoodie and jeans instead of in a suit, which appeared to pique Wall Street bankers who were already concerned that Zuckerberg was more focused on building the product than on ensuring its profitability.

So, if Zuckerberg does take part in Facebook’s first earnings call, every word he says will be analyzed more carefully than reports by most CEOs.

His absence, of course, would also speak volumes.

(The Washington Post Co.’s chairman and chief executive, Donald E. Graham, is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.)

Related stories:

AP: Facebook less trusted with personal data than Amazon and Google, poll says

Bloomberg: Facebook U.S. user tally rises, ComScore says

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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