Facebook shares soar 10% despite impact of coronavirus on ad sales

Facebook’s ad revenue slowed during the first quarter as marketers pulled back due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But the results on Wednesday were good enough to please investors, who sent the company’s shares soaring 10% in after-hours trading to $214.33. They chose to focus on the positives rather than the likelihood that sales will be even worse in the current quarter.

“The impact on our business has been significant,” Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during a call with investors on Wednesday. “I remain very concerned that this health emergency, and therefore the economic fallout, will last longer than people are anticipating.”

The social media giant reported that it had $17.7 billion in revenue during the first quarter, slightly beating analysts’ expectations of $17.4 billion. The result represented a 18% increase compared the same quarter last year, but it marked a major slowdown from the 26% gain at that time.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s profits doubled to $4.9 billion from last year’s first quarter. That gain was mostly due to Facebook paying a $3 billion settlement during the comparable quarter last year related to a privacy probe by the Federal Trade Commission.

The second quarter could prove to be even tougher for Facebook. The company reported that April’s ad sales had stabilized but were “approximately flat” compared to the same time last year. Additionally, Facebook’s $5 billion FTC fine and $5.7 billion investment in India’s largest mobile telecom provider, Jio Platforms, will be reflected in the second quarter.

“The fact that revenue was flat in the first three weeks of April indicates that Q2 will be a much more challenging quarter than Q1 was,” said Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at marketing research firm eMarketer. “Businesses will open up at varying rates, making it incredibly difficult for a company like Facebook to get its ad sales momentum back.”

Ron Josey, an analyst at investment bank JMP Securities, was cautiously optimistic about Facebook’s comments about ad sales finally stabilizing after their decline.

“Frankly to hear that perhaps we saw the bottom and now we’re seeing things open up … I think it’s fair to think things should get better over time,” he said.

But Mark Shmulik, an analyst at brokerage firm AB Bernstein, added to the sense of uncertainty, saying: “If we believe part of this might be due to an immediate spike in e-commerce or stimulus checks, it’s hard to bank on that continuing. And who knows what the economy looks like in upcoming months.”

Yesterday, Google reported a similar slowdown and outlook, saying that its second quarter may be particularly “difficult.”

Though Facebook’s ad business is slowing during the pandemic, use of its family of apps, which includes Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp, is growing quickly because of the millions of people who are stuck at home because of shelter-in-place orders. Monthly active users on Facebook totaled 2.6 billion on March 31, up 10% compared to last year, when the use increased a more modest 8%. Meanwhile, monthly active users on its family of apps, a number Facebook started reporting in the fourth quarter, jumped 11% to the 3 billion, the first time it has achieved that milestone. That’s is an acceleration from the 9% gain in the fourth quarter. 

Facebook’s non-ad revenue, which includes devices like Portal and Oculus, plus payment service fees, jumped 80% compared to a drop of 4% during the same time last year.

Meanwhile, Facebook says it’s working hard during the epidemic by increasing its policing of misinformation related to the virus, providing user surveys to help authorities track people who feel virus symptoms, and giving money to small and medium-sized businesses.

The crisis is also helping Facebook’s push into private messaging services and commerce, as people buy more products from home and communicate online. For example, following a 1,000% gain in video calling on Facebook in March, the company premiered a video conferencing service, Messenger Rooms.

And as many companies lay off workers during the pandemic, Facebook plans to continue hiring, Zuckerberg said. This year, the company will add at least 10,000 more workers in product and engineering, although it will slow hiring for business roles. Facebook ended the quarter with 48,000 employees, up 28% year over year.

“The right thing is to keep investing and building the future,” Zuckerberg said. “When the world changes people have new needs.”

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