UPDATED 14:06 EDT / MARCH 25 2020

POLICY

Internet giants’ ad revenue set to plummet in 2020 even as user traffic surges

Global web traffic is soaring amid the coronavirus pandemic, but the usage deluge is not translating into more ad revenue for internet giants. 

A new projection from Cowen & Co. picked up by Variety today estimates that Facebook Inc. and Google LLC, which command more than half of the U.S. digital ad market, will take a combined $44 billion hit to their 2020 revenues.

Cowen expects Google to bear the brunt of the advertising downturn. The investment bank projects that the search giant will end the year with sales of about $127.5 billion, a 18% drop from its previous estimate representing $28.6 billion in lost revenue. Facebook’s top line, in turn, is expected to slide $15.7 billion, to $67.8 billion.

Other players are being affected as well. Cowen analysts anticipate that Twitter Inc.’s ad income will decline 18%, to $3.2 billion, and the projection for Snap puts its 2020 revenue at $1.66 billion, a full 30% lower than what the investment firm had anticipated previously.

The forecast helps put numbers on how the coronavirus is affecting the web’s top platform operators, which have been warning investors in recent days about the pandemic’s revenue impact. Twitter on Monday pulled its first-quarter revenue guidance while Facebook acknowledged yesterday that its ad business is being “adversely affected.” Facebook also used the opportunity to share some data about the soaring user activity across its platforms, revealing that messaging volume has increased by more than 50% in “many of the countries hit hardest by the virus.”

The figures illustrate the dual challenges facing ad-driven tech giants. The likes of Facebook are seeing their ad income drop as advertisers scale back spending, while the increased user traffic and the sudden switch to remote working internally are creating operational challenges. Last week, it took the social network a full day to fix a news feed bug that blocked coronavirus-related content from many reputable publications.

In the long run, the lessons that internet giants learn amid the unprecedented load on their platforms may help make the web more resilient. It might also lead to better collaboration tools. Now that hundreds of thousands of Facebook and Google are working from home, the companies have an opportunity to gain valuable feedback about their respective team communications services.

In the short term, the companies’ high profit margins should help cushion the virus’ impact on their balance sheets. Despite the projected $15.7 billion revenue drop, Cowen expects that the social network will maintain an adjusted margin of 49% this year to produce operating income of $33.7 billion. Google is projected to generate a profit of $54.3 billion this year with a 43% adjusted margin.

Facebook and Google both dipped more than 1% in trading today even as the Dow Jones has climbed more than 4% since the opening bell. The gains follow the index’s biggest rally in 80 years on Tuesday.

Photo: Unsplash

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