Facebook (META -0.96%) was one of the most hated tech companies of 2020. It was pilloried by various groups for its failure to halt the spread of hate speech, violent content, and fake news, and some of those missteps actually sparked an advertising boycott.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg was questioned and criticized by Congress, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as well as 46 state attorneys general, recently sued Facebook for anticompetitive practices -- and could force it to divest its subsidiaries. Apple's latest iOS update could also make it harder for Facebook and other advertisers to accumulate user data.
But amid all that chaos and a pandemic-induced slowdown in ad sales, Facebook marched on. Its revenue rose 17% year over year in the first nine months of 2020, its net income surged 61%, and its stock price has risen 33% over the past year.
Analysts expect Facebook's revenue and earnings to rise by 19% and 45%, respectively, this year. Next year, they expect its revenue and earnings to grow 24% and 12%, respectively. Those are robust growth rates for a stock that trades at just 25 times forward earnings.
Facebook still faces plenty of near-term challenges, but investors shouldn't overlook three big catalysts that could lift the stock higher next year.
1. Accelerating ad sales
Facebook ranks second in the digital advertising market after Alphabet's (GOOG -0.56%) (GOOGL -0.65%) Google in many countries, including the U.S. That duopoly makes it tough for advertisers to ignore Facebook, which reaches over 3.2 billion people monthly with its family of apps (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp).
That's why the ad boycotts earlier this year were largely temporary and symbolic, and why it easily weathered the slowdown in ad spending throughout the pandemic. In fact, Facebook's ad revenue, which rose 16% year over year in the first nine months of 2020, still grew faster than Google's ad revenue, which rose just 4% year over year during the same period.
Therefore, Facebook's ad growth should accelerate in 2021 as the pandemic passes and advertisers loosen their purse strings. Wall Street's revenue estimates already reflect that recovery, which could continue as long as Facebook's family of apps locks in more users worldwide.
2. Pulling back Instagram's curtain
Facebook's fastest-growing business is likely Instagram, but it doesn't regularly disclose the platform's actual growth metrics. Its number of monthly active users (MAUs) doubled from 500 million to over a billion between 2016 and 2018, but it hasn't updated that figure since then.
Instagram reportedly generated $20 billion in advertising revenue in 2019, according to Bloomberg, which would equal 28% of Facebook's total sales and surpass YouTube's $15.1 billion in ad revenue last year. Instagram only generated an estimated $3.6 billion in revenue back in 2017.
If Facebook pulls back the curtain and reveals Instagram's actual growth rates -- as Google did with YouTube earlier this year -- it could attract more bulls. It could also offer its investors a clearer glimpse of Instagram's growth potential as a social e-commerce platform with shoppable posts, and how the platform could widen its moat against Gen Z-oriented challengers like TikTok and Snap.
Furthermore, those reports could pave the way for a spin-off of Instagram in an IPO -- which could appease regulators, give Facebook's investors new shares of Instagram, and unlock Instagram's growth potential as an independent company.
3. The virtual reality market
Facebook still generates nearly 99% of its revenue from ads, but its "other" business is gradually growing, thanks to brisk sales of its Oculus VR headsets. The Oculus Quest, which didn't require a PC or phone, was well received and led the stand-alone headset market.
Facebook reportedly shipped just 705,000 Oculus Quest headsets last year, according to SuperData. But back in July, a Nikkei report claimed Facebook would ramp up its production of its Quest 2 headsets by up to 50% this year, with a target of 2 million shipments.
That higher target indicated Facebook's growing ecosystem of VR games and content was locking in users. Back in May, Facebook announced it sold over $100 million in VR content for the Quest over the past year -- which implied each Quest owner bought more than $140 in content for their device. That's still a drop in the pond for Facebook, but it indicates the foundations of its VR platform -- which could link its social networking users to each other virtually in the future -- are gradually taking shape.
The global AR and VR market could still expand at a compound annual growth rate of 42.9% between 2020 and 2030, according to Research and Markets, and Facebook is well-poised to profit from that secular trend.
The bottom line
I don't plan on selling my shares of Facebook anytime soon. It's a favorite punching bag for the critics, but its core business is strong, it remained resilient throughout a brutal downturn this year, and fresh catalysts could lift the stock to new highs next year.