Was this quarter Facebook's big turn around moment? Not likely

By Erin Griffith , written on October 23, 2012

From The News Desk

Facebook reported the results of its second quarter as a public company today, and OMG, they weren't terrible!

The company's failure to monetize on mobile has been heavily weighing on its stock over the last six months. Finally, after eight months of work and perhaps more importantly, a strategic stump speech from CEO Mark Zuckerberg, we've seen some progress: Mobile ads now comprise 14 percent of Facebook's income from ads.

Wall Street seemed pleased enough, trading the stock up almost 10 percent after hours. And there's more! Yesterday we saw Facebook cleared (or likely to be) of charges that the company mislead retail investors about bad performance in the weeks prior to it going public.

Are the clouds of this IPO from hell finally lifting? That was certainly what a lot of reporters took from today's conference call. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. It's going to take a long time for Facebook's stock to claw its way back to even IPO levels. The company's shares still trade at around half of its IPO price. As long as there are Wall Street commentators demanding the company "earn Wall Street's respect," Zuckerberg and friends are still in the penalty box.

Yes, Zuckerberg has a vision. Something about making the world more open and connected and not merely to become a public company, as he wrote in his S-1 letter and repeated on the day of his IPO. But now, having been through IPO hell, Zuckerberg recognizes what he has to do in order to execute that vision: He needs to sell like crazy, to investors, to the press, and most importantly, to advertisers. The last piece of that requires the tiny little task of upending all of advertising.

One way Zuckerberg is appeasing those three constituents is by integrating monetization into all product groups. He has tainted product, the thing Facebook is supposed to hold so sacred, with money. The newsfeed team is responsible for building the ad experience into the newsfeed, for example. The search team will be responsible for building the ad experience into search, when that eventually happens. This will create a better experience for users and for advertisers, he explained in the earnings call.

The company is also building advertising products as fast as it builds features for users. This quarter Facebook introduced FBX, an ad exchange that brings the creepiness of retargeting inside Facebook's walled garden. It rolled out Custom Audiences, a more focused way to target ads that COO Sheryl Sandberg assured us were "privacy-friendly." It rolled out Facebook Offers -- a better version of Groupon -- which 100,000 advertisers have purchased, and it rolled out Promoted Posts, a different name for Sponsored Stories, which 300,000 advertisers have used.

And about that whiffing on mobile thing? Zuckerberg called it a "myth," as did Instagram founder Kevin Systrom at last week's PandoMonthly. Zuckerberg is aggressively pointing to the amount of time spent on Facebook on mobile as an indicator of the spoils the company is sure to come into. But as I wrote this summer, time spent does not automatically equal a good advertising opportunity, especially on mobile. Still, Facebook's revenue growth in that area at least points to progress.

Facebook is doing everything in its power to win over Wall Street. And the company can celebrate this quarter as a step in the right direction. But it won't be that simple. For all the press rewriting the history of Facebook to be a sure thing, the company has always had a valuation that was years ahead of itself and has had several periods where some of the smartest commenters in the industry pronounced it dead. The only difference now that anyone can trade the stock is that Zuckerberg has to convince more than a handful of VCs and secondary buyers the company will continue to grow into the heady valuations it has gotten so used to.

For as much as Facebook has positioned itself -- and been positioned -- as the next Google, Facebook may turn out to be the next Amazon: A company that just takes a decade or more to rise to its own dominance. And like Jeff Bezos, Zuckerberg may have to accept that Wall Street just won't understand the power of what he has built for another 10 years. He started out with that Bezos-like, screw-you-Wall-Street attitude, but it appears to have vanished of late.

That comparison, of course, presupposes that Zuckerberg can pull off what Bezos has, when it comes to dramatically evolving product and strategy -- and that's a big assumption.

But playing Wall Street's game a little is ultimately what shareholders and employees need most from Zuckerberg right now. He knew going into this thing that he'd be beholden to the irrational reactions to his company's ability to meet, beat, or miss a group of educated guesses from a bunch of analysts every three months -- that's one reason he put it off for so long. If his vision is correct and Facebook can deliver on everything he says it will, he'll be able to look back on these tough early days -- and investors' lack of faith -- and smile.