Barclays: Facebook to soar nearly 20 percent as social network raises ad prices to combat slowing growth

  • Barclays says Facebook can counter slowing ad impression growth with gradual increases in price, like Google did before it.
  • Analyst Ross Sandler reiterates his buy rating and $215 price target, reflecting 18 percent upside over the next 12 months.
  • Shares of Facebook are up nearly 60 percent since January but fell 4 percent Wednesday as technology stocks rolled over.

Facebook should be able to drive advertising prices higher to help offset a deceleration in ad impressions, according to Barclays.

Instagram and Facebook Messenger, two apps owned by Facebook, could also provide a boost to additional impression growth, according to analyst Ross Sandler, who reiterated his buy rating.

"Facebook is the best pure play in consumer internet around mobile advertising, and continues to take a large share of mobile advertising budgets," Sandler wrote on Tuesday. "Google was able to increase price at a healthy clip for over a decade, so we think Facebook is in a good position to do the same.

"Ad product innovation coupled with favorable macro advertising share shift dynamics should drive share of digital and mobile ad spend for the foreseeable future," he wrote.

Facebook's ad impression deceleration over the past three quarters has been a topic of much debate on Wall Street as investors try to determine whether the slowdown is permanent. While impression growth has been slowing for a while, Facebook's eCPM, a popular measure of ad cost, has been ramping.

If one wanted to take a "pessimistic" view of Facebook's performance in the third quarter, core Facebook ad impression growth may not have even grown in the U.S., according to the Barclays report. Like Google before it, Facebook's future success will likely hinge on its ability to push price (not volume) over several years as impressions taper.

"Facebook's holy grail is finding a way to unlock value in its abundance of upper-funnel impressions, and getting its 6 million+ advertisers to pay slightly more for each of those impressions," explained Sandler. "Products like custom audiences and retargeting are helpful to identify users more granularly than what was occurring before these products launched."

To be sure, the analyst is still largely positive on Mark Zuckerberg's social media behemoth. His $215 price target reflects 18 percent upside over the next 12 months. Shares of Facebook fell 4 percent Wednesday but are up nearly 60 percent since January.