Banking on Facebook

We all know that the upcoming IPO for Facebook will be an exercise in minting money—just ask founder Mark Zuckerberg’s tax accountants, who have some busy days ahead. But could the company actually mint money in an even more literal sense? Could this young upstart, which has become essentially the currency of communication in the era of social networking, become actual currency?

It already is. It’s clearly more interesting to write about all the young millionaires the public offering will spawn, but a more consequential story is that of Facebook Credits. For many consumers, it will be a completely new way of doing business. For financial services institutions looking ahead, it’s a potential—and totally unexpected—rival. But looking even further ahead, it could be a major opportunity, at least for those willing to go for the new.

For the record, Facebook Credits are, according to the company, a virtual currency consumers can use to buy virtual goods in any games or apps of the Facebook platform that accept payments. Facebook Credits can be purchased directly from within an app using a credit card, PayPal, mobile phone and other local payment methods. While they’ve gone largely unnoticed in the public forum, the practice is getting new attention for its inclusion in the company’s public filing.

For the record, Facebook is still essentially a media company in the sense that it derives the bulk of its revenue from advertising. However, revenue from “payments and fees” spiked from $13 million in 2009 to $106 million in 2010—a growth spurt similar to the company’s own consumer adoption. That’s even before Facebook Credits became mandatory for nearly all game developers in July of last year.

A couple of related factoids: first, while the best-known Facebook game developer, Zynga (the force behind FarmVille) has separate deals with other financial services providers like Discover, Facebook gets up to 30 percent of the face value of user purchases in Zynga’s games on the Facebook Platform. Even more interesting, the company acknowledges in its filing that “payments on the Facebook Platform could be considered a financial product.” In other words, the company could be classified as a financial services institution.

Wall Street, meet your newest occupant? No, Facebook isn’t likely to go head-to-head with JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, or even your neighborhood credit union, anytime soon. But banks and other financial entities would still be wise to take heed and consider options in this evolving marketplace.

No one, not even its most fervent backers, could have predicted Facebook’s astonishing ascent, from a Harvard dorm room in 2004 to a sixth of the world’s population in barely six years. In the process, it has redefined the very notion of daily human interaction, demolished geographic boundaries and age/class/gender/ethnic barriers, obliterated many distinctions between corporate and consumer communications, and played a key role in aiding democratic revolutions. Is the idea that it could fundamentally transform financial transactions really so far-fetched?

So far, it’s an open question as to what more traditional financial services firms can do to compete, even if they’re so inclined. Some analysts have suggested partnerships to, for example, launch co-branded credit cards. But that’s thinking small, and old. Facebook demands big, and new.

There are billions (literally) of consumers out there spending all that time on a platform that’s still largely a distraction. There are massive, and numerous, opportunities to monetize that. It’s time to innovate.

Written by Staff