by Tom Taulli | February 3, 2014 3:00 pm
When he was a student at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg liked to spend much of his spare time creating web apps. A few of them stirred controversy on campus, but there was one web app that would make history: TheFacebook.com. Launched on Feb. 4, 2004, Zuckerberg wanted to replace the outdated, hardbound facebooks. The Internet, he figured, would be much better.
Of course, now Facebook (FB) is the world’s largest social network, with more than 1.23 billion users. The value of FB stock is about $155 billion, and Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth is $19 billion.
Yet will the company still remain the dominant player in social networking by 2024? Or will there will be a new player challenging FB stock?
If history is any indication, it seems likely that we will see a new king. Just look at how once dominant companies like AOL (AOL) and Yahoo (YHOO) faded away in the face of FB stock.
So, which companies are making a push for the throne? Here’s a look at three possibilities:
The assumption is that the next FB will be from a company in Silicon Valley. But this could prove to be just American bias. Instead, it’s a good bet that the dominant social network of the future will come outside the U.S.
Look at WeChat, which is a part of Chinese-based Tencent (TCEHY). Launched just three years ago, the app already has 272 million monthly active users (MAUs). A unique aspect is that it allows users to send voice messages. In a sense, WeChat is kind of like a social walkie-talkie.
The app also has an innovative business model: WeChat sells virtual items like stickers and emoticons.
As for the next step, the company is making a big push into the US market. Part of the strategy is to spend heavy amounts on marketing. But WeChat is also trying out interesting promotions, such as offering $25 gift cards to get Google (GOOG) users to move over. If WeChat keeps gaining momentum, FB stock had better watch out.
The app seems kind of weird: It allows users to send photos that disappear within 10 seconds of being viewed. Yet it has turned out to be hugely popular, especially with younger users.
One reason for its success has been that it encourages sharing. After all, the photos will go away, right? Besides, there is no fear that an awkward photo will wind up being viewed by a potential employer.
So SnapChat is directly opposite of the ethos of Facebook, which encourages the public sharing of seemingly everything.
According to a blog post from IVP, which recently invested in SnapChat: “We cannot disclose any of Snapchat’s user statistics publicly, but the growth and engagement metrics are off the charts. Seldom have we seen a consumer application with this type of user momentum and excitement.”
Keep in mind that the firm has invested in breakout companies like Twitter (TWTR), Netflix (NFLX) and Shazam.
And as a sign of SnapChat’s prowess, Facebook did make a $3 billion cash offer for the company, which ultimately got rejected. When news of this came out, FB stock took a bit of a hit as investors started to question whether the company was losing its touch.
Perhaps the biggest threat to FB stock is WhatsApp. This is another mobile-first company, which is focused on messaging. And it has been red-hot, amassing a user base of over 430 million users. Twitter, by comparison, only has 230 million users.
Kind of like SnapChat, WhatsApp takes an unconventional approach: It doesn’t have any advertising. Rather, the business model is to charge a 99 cent annual fee after the first year of the sign-up. As a result, there is no distracting ads or collection of user information.
So yes, privacy does matter for a lot of people — and it is something that millions will pay for. No doubt, it could be something else for Zuckerberg to worry about, as well as holders of FB stock.
Will any of these networks dethrone FB as the social media king, sending FB stock crashing? It’s impossible to say. But FB stock investors should remember that competition can come from anywhere, and rise up very, very quickly.
Just ask that kid from Harvard.
Tom Taulli runs the InvestorPlace blog IPO Playbook. He is also the author of High-Profit IPO Strategies, All About Commodities and All About Short Selling. Follow him on Twitter at @ttaulli. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.
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