So typical for New Yorkers to think that everything comes down to money. The New York Post's late-to-the-game article on Facebook this morning had just one interesting, unreported tidbit among the rehash: The stakes in Microsoft and Google's race to invest have been raised to as high as $1.5 billion — or 10 percent of the company, valuing it at $15 billion. Frankly, I'm skeptical. While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg would be stupid not to take all the money he can off the table, his outside investors — a list which includes Peter Thiel, Sean Parker, and Accel Partners — don't want their stakes diluted that much. Selling off that large a chunk of Facebook would shrink their collective holdings — as much as 27 percent of the company, we hear — down to less than a quarter. That's just one reason why money doesn't matter as much as the Wall Street set would have you believe.
Rather, money does matter, but not in the way the Post thinks. As important as the upfront investment is, the terms of a separate agreement to carry ads are just as vital. And the devil here is in the details. Facebook rightly fears that giving Google access to its ad inventory would let it learn the secrets of targeting ads to social networks. Microsoft, on the other hand, is far less likely to figure things out.
Microsoft, however, has the lion's share of Facebook's U.S. banner-ad inventory through 2011. It's a deal that is lucrative in the short term for Facebook, but will handicap it in the long run.
But I think Facebook's figuring a way around it. The simple way, of course, is to take Microsoft's money and restucture the advertising deal to make Microsoft a backstop to Facebook's own ad efforts. As Facebook's own ad sales grow, Microsoft's presence on the site will slowly dwindle. I suspect Facebook is seeking similar terms for Google on international ads, so it doesn't make the same mistake it did with Microsoft.
And if that doesn't work?
Facebook recently trademarked "SocialAds," reportedly the name for the system it plans to unveil in New York next month. While Facebook is growing fast, the name of the game in online advertising is running a network. AOL has Advertising.com; Google has AdSense; and Yahoo has its Yahoo Publishers Network. By selling ads on other websites, these players expand their reach, gather more data on which ads are effective, and make better use of their salespeople.
Even if it doesn't wrestle back control of its U.S. ad inventory from Microsoft, and even if it lets Google sell international ads on its behalf, I bet that Facebook will start selling ads on other websites, targeting the users of those sites based on their activity on Facebook. It doesn't need to share private data with those independent publishers to do so; it can just serve up the ads, charge higher rates for better targeting, and lure those websites out of the giants' grasp.
In theory, of course. Facebook's advertising technology is young and untested. And to test it, it needs data; to get data, it needs ad inventory. That's why the Post botched this story. Facebook has a hard choice: Cold, hard cash upfront, or a chance at Google-like riches down the road. It's not as simple as just cashing a big check — even though that's the only kind of story East Coast media seems to understand.