Why Facebook Wins If Microsoft Buys TikTok

Jon Markman

President Trump wants to ban TikTok, a short-form video platform loved by teens, millennials and celebrities. Ignore the politics. The big winner is Facebook (FB).

Microsoft ((MSFT) -Get Report) is reported to be negotiating with ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of TikTok, according to a report from Bloomberg. In addition to logistics, the parties are haggling about price. Meanwhile, Twitter ((TWTR) -Get Report) is reported to be negotiating for a tie-up to TikTok too.

For Microsoft, making all of the parts work is not going to be easy. To satisfy the White House, Microsoft execs want to cleave off TikTok members in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, then secure all of their data on Microsoft servers.

While that’s attractive on paper, what happens when a TikTokker in Paris or London wants to interact with someone in New York? Splitting the platform in two means fragmentation, and a poor user experience. It opens the door to wily competitors like Facebook. Stick a pin in that.

One solution would be to acquire the entire company. The rub is a social media platform mostly devoted to dance videos and bad lip syncing doesn’t mesh with the buttoned-down enterprise software culture in Redmond. A big price tag would make selling the deal doubly tough with Microsoft’s board of directors.

In July Business Insider reported in that ByteDance was valued as high as $140 billion earlier this year.

That valuation speaks to the viral growth of TikTok. With its high silliness quotient, the platform was perfectly positioned for global pandemic, a bit of lighthearted fun in an otherwise dour time. The application had 315 million downloads in the first quarter. Analysts now believe TikTok has 100 million daily active users in the United States.

Investment bankers, according to Bloomberg, value those users at $20 billion to $50 billion. The wide range takes into account the tricky math of determining the number of reliable users and monetization going forward. It’s one thing to build a userbase. It’s quite another to keep them.

The obvious comparison is Vine, another short-form video platform that launched June, 2012. Vine consisted of short loop videos captured from smartphone cameras. It was a shiny new toy that attracted millennials and celebrities for fun and self-promotion. Back in the day, it was a sensation. Only four months after launch, Twitter  acquired the business for $30 million.

Vine was the most downloaded iPhone app April, 2013. Launches on Android, Xbox and Windows followed. There was even a music licensing deal as active users swelled to 200 million. During a 2015 Recode interview, Jason Toff, general manager, boasted the platform had moved beyond simple social media platforms like Facebook.

Less than two years later Twitter discontinued the Vine mobile apps.

In hindsight Vine never had a chance because Facebook, in 2013, launched a short-form video competitor. Instagram Live offered Vine-like video features in the context of a larger social media platform. Through the next four years Facebook aggressively courted celebrities. Managers began pulling marketers away from Vine. One former Vine executive told the Verge, Instagram video was the beginning of the end.

The slow motion process is playing out again.

Facebook, last week, announced Instagram Reels, a short-form video feature that brings to the platform many of the same features that made TikTok famous.

Investors should not lose sight of the bigger picture. Facebook is attempting to transform TikTok from a platform to a simple feature on its Instagram social media property. Also, keep in mind that Instagram has more than 1 billion active users, an ad placement system marketers understand, and is home most of the world’s celebrities and social media influencers.

But that’s not why Facebook is the big winner in the TikTok divestiture saga.

Facebook wins because Microsoft will have a tough time integrating TikTok if it wins the bidding. Redmond is also is likely to pay dearly for the platform. That price tag will shine a bright light on the true value of Instagram, a platform more than 10x larger, with superior monetization and better prospects. That business, now hidden inside Facebook shares, may be worth $300 billion to $500 billion.

The current market capitalization of Facebook is $755 billion. Shares trade at 26x forward earnings and 10x sales. Given the TikTok numbers being talked about, that valuation seems absurdly low.

Investors should buy Facebook. It might be the best value in tech.

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