Mark Zuckerberg might value his friends more than his shareholders.
In a Facebook post Thursday, the social media giant's chief executive officer outlined a series of shifts designed to orient users' news feeds toward content from family and friends at the expense of material from media outlets and businesses. Shares of Facebook fell as much as 5.5 per cent to $177.40 Friday.
One line in particular might be unsettling the company's investor base.
"By making these changes, I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down," he wrote.
As Mr. Zuckerberg looks to strike the right balance between the needs of shareholders, regulators and users, Wall Street is trying to figure out how these changes affect the interplay between the time users spend on the platform, the amount of ads they'll see, and how much Facebook will be able to charge for each one.
Here's what analysts are saying about Facebook's decision to prioritize personal connections.
Stifel analyst Scott Devitt (hold, PT $195)
"The recent narrative has shifted to social impact, which is concerning to us…The company faces quite a challenge -- address platform issues that run counter to monetization and negatively impact short-term performance, or ignore the challenges and put the franchise at risk…Recent commentary by early Facebook employees (Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya), early Facebook investors (Roger McNamee) and others, as well as a congressional investigation of Facebook's impact on the 2016 presidential election are cause for caution for us given our potentially naïve believe that socially responsible consumer companies have a long-term mandate for success that requires doing well by doing good."
In a follow-up note, Mr. Devitt then said:
"There is too much uncertainty relating to the economic impact of Facebook's pending News Feed changes for us to be comfortable retaining a Buy rating on the stock. We are lowering our rating to hold."
JPMorgan analyst Doug Anmuth (overweight, PT $230)
"It is too early to know the full impact of these changes, and we are not adjusting any numbers right now, but it does create risk to Facebook's financials. Mark's post, quite deliberately we think, does not mention ads or advertising. But it does call out posts from businesses and brands, and it's possible these change will result in lower ad load in the News Feed…We expect near-term weakness in Facebook shares."
Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser (sell, PT $147)
"Usage was already falling prior to this announcement, if from very high levels… The impact of reduced ad impressions on revenue can be mitigated to some degree because a) Instagram is still growing (although it is relatively small in comparison to Facebook) b) Facebook likely has pricing power (although we think many brand-focused advertisers are not fully aware of the limited viewability of ads which run on Facebook) c) there are many ways to manage ad inventory, such as by focusing on higher-paying advertisers rather than lower-paying ones and d) ongoing improvements in targeting or otherwise satisfying marketer goals can mean less inventory is required to satisfy advertiser goals in many instances. Still, revenue growth deceleration seemed inevitable heading into this year even before the news (we forecast +32 percent). In short, company's actions bring a headwind to growth in the near-term (adding to other factors limiting growth such as ad budget saturation, margin erosion from increased content investment, regulations such as GDPR in Europe and the prospect of further regulation elsewhere along with general trust issues the company faces because of measurement and ad policy issues publicized over the past 18 months)."
Evercore ISI analyst Anthony DiClemente (outperform, PT $225)
"We'd be buyers on the pullback. Our view is that Facebook is making the change from a position of strength and the move is likely a longer term positive for the quality of time spent on the platform…We believe it is conceivable that a further reduction in available inventory simply leads to higher ad prices and revenue trajectory is mostly unaffected… De-emphasizing news could buy a little breathing room from regulatory scrutiny. To the extent that concerns regarding the presence of 'fake news' may have been placing increased regulatory scrutiny on Facebook, these algorithm changes could help reassure regulators that Facebook is making every effort to remedy known issues."
Bank of America analyst Justin Post (buy, $230)
"With the influx of public content in recent years, Mr. Zuckerberg indicated that the News Feed has diverged somewhat from the intended focus on social connection. Facebook is revising the product team goals from helping users find relevant content to helping users have more meaningful social connections. Even within public content, the goal is to favor that which encourages meaningful interactions between people. At its core, the goal appears to be realigning Facebook as a social platform and less of a media/news outlet… We expect the content shift and commentary on potential usage pressure to raise some concerns on potential revenue headwinds. While ad supply may face some added pressure in 2018, we think an improving user experience and higher quality content could drive higher ad prices to counterbalance."
Atlantic Equities analyst James Cordwell (overweight, PT $215)
"The changes appear informed by Facebook's research that time spent on social networks interacting with friends can be positive for well-being, while passively reading articles or watching video can have the opposite effect. It also seems likely that the problems Facebook has run into in distributing news have played a part in the decision, with the company maybe also questioning the value of some of its lower quality, hard-to-monetise video watch time. Indeed, if the majority of the expected engagement reduction comes from time spent watching video and reading articles, then the impact on newsfeed scroll time and associated ad volumes could be much more modest, and potentially even positive… The implications of these changes are likely unhelpful for the stock's multiple in the near-term, especially if it continues to make the platform more reliant on price over volume to drive growth and is viewed as diminishing the longer-term video opportunity."
Piper Jaffray analyst Sam Kemp (overweight, PT $200)
"Facebook's announced changes to News Feed (prioritizing user-generated and discussion-creating content) reflects that core Facebook has strayed toward a cluttered use case that prioritized publisher content, rather than bi-directional content (friends, family, community)… We see this as the right long-term decision for the platform and, over the near-term, doubt that this will have a material impact on revenue for two reasons: 1) Instagram's ad performance has gained advertiser attention in the past year and, given it shares the same Ads Manager with Facebook, is in a strong place to absorb any unallocated budget due to impression declines at Facebook and 2) the past several quarters have demonstrated that advertisers are willing to absorb higher ad prices as impression quantity compresses."
Credit Suisse analyst Stephen Ju (outperform, PT $232)
"The end result in our view is that Facebook is once again making the same volume versus monetization trade off (slowing down ad load growth) which started late 4Q16. At this point Facebook's ability to offset with better ad price growth should not be a matter of debate given the results of 1Q17-3Q17. And brands and businesses may now presumably have to incur increased fees for greater access to the Facebook user."