3 things to watch for in Facebook's earnings

July 25, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

After its brutal initial public offering, the social networking company must show Wall Street it is serious about making money.

FORTUNE -- Facebook will face a tough audience when the company reports its first quarter earnings on Thursday. After a theatrically disastrous initial public offering in May, the Menlo Park, Calif-based social network must now show Wall Street it can continue to grow both users and revenue at a brisk pace and has the discipline to deliver strong profits quarter after quarter to keep investors committed.

So far, it's been a rough ride. The stock has been trading at around $29 this week -- a 24% drop from the price at which it closed on its first day -- as investors question the strength of its advertising business and fret over how the company will make money on mobile platforms. Here are three things to keep in mind for Thursday's 5PM EST earnings call:

The Cast
There's no doubt that Facebook (FB) CFO David Ebersman will play a lead role on the call. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who recently joined the company's board, is also expected to speak. The focus will be on whether founder Mark Zuckerberg joins the call, and what he chooses to contribute.

Zuckerberg began his letter to potential shareholders last winter by explaining that Facebook was not originally created to be a company. "It was built to accomplish a social mission to make the world more open and connected," he wrote. Many investors have fretted that such pronouncements suggests that Zuck, who has absolute control over the company through his majority of the voting shares, is not focused on delivering profits. Therefore, his presence alone will send a signal to analysts that Zuckerberg takes profit-making seriously, and any comments will be carefully parsed.

Advertising
Most of Facebook's revenue comes from advertising, and the company is under extreme pressure to show that its ads are working well and they can continue to deliver growing returns. In the first quarter of the year, Facebook's revenues had declined from the previous quarter. Just days before the company went public, General Motors (GM) announced it stopped buying ads on Facebook because the company didn't believe people were buying more cars as a result. Facebook's executives will need to show investors that its ads do work, and that the company is making progress in its efforts to help advertisers better understand why they are effective.

Additionally, Facebook will need to show that it is innovating its business model and not just its product by launching new ways to help brands reach consumers. One example: The company is testing and plans to launch Facebook Exchange, which is meant to track the behavior of Facebook's reported 901 million monthly users as they visit other sites and serve customized advertisements to them on Facebook.

Mobile
More than half of Facebook's users are accessing the site on their tablets and smartphones. Facebook has been open about its struggle to follow users to mobile platforms. With no software platform like Google's (GOOG) Android operating system or Apple's (AAPL) iOS, Facebook lags its competitors, and its most popular mobile app is clunky and slow. What's more, Facebook's nascent mobile advertising strategy, launched in February, hasn't yet shown hefty returns.

The company has been acquiring mobile talent aggressively, often through purchases like the May 18 acquisition of social-gifting application Karma. On April 9, Facebook agreed to purchase popular photo-sharing application Instagram, though the deal has not officially closed. And in June, Facebook launched an App Center on Facebook as well as on both Android and Apple devices to make it easier for users to find apps including Facebook's own recently launched Facebook Camera, a mobile app for sharing Facebook photos. As the company gets ready to address investors, Facebook's executives have an opportunity to tie these events together as part of a more coherent strategy and help their shareholders understand how they plan to make a larger profit off mobile users.

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About This Author
Jessi Hempel
Jessi Hempel
Senior Writer, Fortune

Jessi Hempel is a New York-based technology writer for Fortune. She has written extensively about digital media, online advertising and social networking. Before joining Fortune in July 2007, Hempel worked at BusinessWeek and most recently served as their innovation department editor. Hempel is a graduate of Brown University and received a Masters in Journalism from The University of California at Berkeley.

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