A year after IPO, Facebook aims to be ad colossus

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NEW YORK -- It was supposed to be our IPO, the people's public offering.

Facebook, brainchild of a young CEO who sauntered into Wall Street meetings in a hoodie, was going to be bigger than Amazon, than McDonald's, than Coca-Cola. And it was all made possible by our friendships, photos and family ties.

Then came the IPO, which flopped. Facebook stock finished its first trading day just 23 cents higher than its $38 IPO price. It hasn't been that high since.

Even amid the hype and excitement around Facebook's May 18 stock market debut a year ago, there were looming doubts. Investors wondered whether the social network could increase ad revenue without alienating users, especially those using smartphones and tablet computers.

The worries intensified just days before the IPO, when General Motors said it would stop paying for ads on the site. The symbolic exit cast a shroud over Facebook that still exists.

Facebook's market value is $63 billion, some two-thirds of what it was the morning it first began trading. At around $27 per share, its stock is down roughly 30 percent from its IPO price. Meanwhile, the Standard & Poor's 500 index is up 27 percent over the same period.

Despite its disappointing stock market performance, the company has delivered strong financial results. Net income increased 7 percent to $219 million in the most recent quarter, compared with the prior year, and revenue was up 38 percent to $1.46 billion.

The world's biggest online social network has also kept growing to 1.1 billion users. Some 665 million people check in every day to share photos, comment on news articles and play games. Millions globally who don't own a computer use Facebook.

And much has changed at Facebook in a year. The company's executives and engineers have quietly addressed the doubts that dogged the company for so long. Facebook began showing mobile ads for the first time just after the IPO. It launched a search feature in January and unveiled a Facebook-branded smartphone in April. It also introduced ways for advertisers to gauge the effectiveness of their ads.

Even GM has returned as a paying advertiser.

Now, Facebook is looking to its next challenge: convincing big brand-name consumer companies that ads on a social network are as important -- and as effective -- as television spots.

"We aspire to have ads, to show ads that improve the content experience over time," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told analysts recently. "And if we continue making progress on this, then one day we can get there."

To achieve those aims, the company has rolled out tools to help advertisers target their messages more precisely than they can in print or on television. Companies can single out 18- to 24-year-old male Facebook users who are likely to buy a car in the next six months. They can target 30-year-old women who are researching Caribbean getaways.

Analytic tools like these weren't available a year ago. But last fall, Facebook hired several firms that collect and analyze data related to people's online and offline behavior. Facebook advertisers can now assess whether a Crest ad you saw on Facebook likely led you to buy of a toothpaste tube in the drugstore.

So powerful is Facebook's new analytic arsenal that privacy advocates are concerned about potential intrusiveness of merging consumers' online and offline experiences. People "are getting served ads based on things they didn't put on Facebook, and maybe wouldn't be comfortable putting on Facebook," says Rainey Reitman, activism director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil-liberties firm. Facebook says mechanisms are in place to protect privacy.

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