Much has been made of the mobile risks that Facebook laid out in its S-1 IPO filing earlier this week. Essentially, it’s seeing/pushing massive growth in mobile, but it still hasn’t tried out advertising, its most effective route to revenues, on this platform. That’s not to say it won’t. But meanwhile, there is another area where Facebook is already making money through mobile.
For as long as Facebook has been running its Facebook Credits program — the virtual currency that users can redeem on games and other content peddled through Facebook’s network — it has been letting users top up those Credits using their mobile phones. It does this in partnership with companies like (reportedly) Boku and (definitely) Zong, the payments company bought by eBay’s PayPal last year. Users can also top up their Credits via PayPal and credit cards.
It’s not known how much, exactly, is purchased via the mobile channel today, but it is an example of how mobile is actually already driving significant revenue for Facebook. “Facebook Credits make a lot of money through mobile phones,” enough that Zong was “growing very fast last year” because of Facebook purchases, according to Frederic Court, a partner with Advent Venture Parnters, one of the VCs that backed Zong before the eBay (NSDQ: EBAY) buy.
This is because while sometimes the mobile payments were actually more expensive than a PayPal or credit card transaction, they are often a lot quicker to do, especially if you are in the middle of a game. And, as with other mobile-based payment options, they appeal to those who don’t have or want to enter card details.
Commissions on those Credits netted Facebook $557 million in revenues in 2011. (Facebook writes in the S-1 that the “other fees” that it designates on the same line as Payments was “immaterial.”)
At this point, Facebook doesn’t take any commission on Credits that are purchased via mobile: that service — which uses the premium SMS channel to send a code to a user to redeem Credits on the main site, and then charges the amount directly to the user’s mobile bill — already has some other parties taking a cut, including the provider (eg Zong or Boku), the mobile carrier and even another processing middleman. Rather, Facebook’s cut comes in the form of a commission on the payments, similar to what Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) takes for transactions on its App Store. That fee is 30 percent.
Could Facebook eventually take more control of its payments, and potentially cut out some of those middle people? Probably not soon, in Court’s opinion. “Zong brought something to Facebook that it didn’t know how to do, and it became very deeply integrated,” he said. “I don’t see them starting to do what Zong does, which is connecting hundreds of operators.” Then again, he added, “When they have a worth of $100 billion with $10 billion on the balance sheet they can do pretty much anything they want.”
What’s interesting is that as Facebook starts to expand some of the other functionality on its mobile platform, that will also open up a lot more opportunities in terms of mobile transactions as well.
As Facebook enables and opens APIs to get publishers to build apps for its mobile platforms (via the web and apps), “Facebook will make sure those are monetized,” he said. “I have no doubt Facebook will be making money on mobile games and other content given the engagement and scale on mobile. There is an amazing opening there.” Paying for Credits that will actually get used on the device itself, he said, will be “even more natural.”
Facebook in the S-1 said it had 425 million monthly active users accessing the social network via mobile devices, with that number outpacing the growth of overall subscribers.
“Credits is a wallet that you can top up in all kinds of ways,” he said. “Facebook has created its own currency and has imposed that on anyone offering digital goods on Facebook.” If anything, that currency might have a life outside the platform, to to buy things outside of Facebook.
But even with the opportunity for Credits, Court doesn’t see this eventually overtaking revenues from whatever advertising Facebook plans to put on its mobile services “for a very simple reason,” which is down to how those games are played today. “If you look at Zynga, only between two and three percent of people who play actually pay. The rest play for free. Tt will be the same for Facebook on mobile, with only a fraction spending money,” he predicted. “With advertising, 100 percent of the population is exposed.”
Even though Facebook has listed “no mobile ads” as one of its risks on the S-1, it could be playing its cards very close to its chest: the last few days has been a lot of speculation already about how soon Facebook will launch those mobile ads.
Razorfish (via Digiday) says that it is already working on a pilot for rich-media ads for the social network.
The blog Inside Facebook, meanwhile, has put its money down on sponsored stories to be the “most likely” first stab at mobile advertising on the site, with running a mobile ad network the second-most likely option. (That’s one that we explored a bit yesterday as well.)
Update: Razorfish’s VP of mobile, Paul Gelb, has made a correction on how his comments were portrayed in the Digiday story (via Twitter): his agency is not working on any mobile ad buying with Facebook. “In the interview I was referring to rich media featured stories, not paid ads,” he said.
A Facebook spokesperson, via email, added the following: “We want to clarify that we are not working with any agency to create paid ads on our mobile platform.”