There is a $100M discrepancy in Facebook’s payments revenues

There is a $100 million discrepancy between what Facebook earned in payments revenue and what it paid out to developers, according to revenue figures in its IPO filing last week.

In the filing it says, “In 2011, our Platform developers received more than $1.4 billion from transactions enabled by our Payments infrastructure.”

But based on the company’s $557 million in payments revenue last year and its 30 percent share of transactions on the platform, Facebook should have paid out $1.3 billion at most. There is at least a $100 million discrepancy here. A company spokesperson declined to comment.

There are a number of possibilities:

Facebook may have comped free Credits for some developers: When Facebook began rolling out its virtual currency Credits, it would give them away for free to entice users to sign-up. Developers would have to eat the extra costs if  players bearing these free Credits showed up to play their games. They complained — loudly. But it’s possible Facebook comped some of this free Credits usage for certain developers.

(Sidenote: This only happened to gaming companies that used Credits as their in-game currency. Some developers like EA and Zynga didn’t change their in-game currency but still used Facebook to manage their payments.)

There may have been initial problems with fraud in the early months of Credits, which the company may have also comped for developers: One other developer told us that there were early issues with fraud and completion in Facebook Credits purchases (as you would expect with a nascent payments platform). So perhaps Facebook covered developers for these problems too.

Certain developers may have gotten a more favorable revenue share: It would be surprising if Facebook discounted its revenue share for favored partners. Facebook has always been adamant about taking a flat 30 percent cut across the board for all developers. Even Facebook’s special multi-year agreement with Zynga explicitly mentions the 30 percent payments share (although there are parts right around that number that are redacted in the contract, which was attached to Facebook’s IPO filing).

From the filing. (Anything marked [*] is a redaction):

“The amount of the service fee described in the Facebook Credits Terms that we charge to you at any given time to redeem Facebook Credits shall be [*] 30% per each Facebook Credit redeemed [*].”

Facebook started doing promotions on Credits with 80 percent discounts last November: One likely explanation might be promotions on Credits that ran from November to January. They gave certain players 80 percent discounts on the virtual currency, but still paid developers as if the virtual currency was priced normally, according to our conversations with gaming companies in the ecosystem.

There are a couple of ways to think about this. On the one hand, when we see individual developers engage in aggressive virtual currency sales, it can be a red flag. It’s a sign that they are sacrificing long-term revenue for short-term gains. They might be trying to boost financial performance to look better in an acquisition or funding round.

But Facebook isn’t a company that culturally operates for the short-term like that. By discounting Credits, the company is potentially getting more users to hand over their credit card data — which will make it more frictionless for them to pay for things down the road with Credits.

Right now, Facebook likely has payments data on just a small fraction of its users. If you consider that 50 percent of Facebook’s 845 million monthly active users play games, and then 2 to 6 percent of them monetize by paying for virtual currency, then a back-of-the-envelope calculation would suggest that they have payments data on around 30 million users. By comparison, Apple has more than 250 million iTunes accounts. Facebook needs more credit card data on more users if it wants to power payments for more interesting areas down the road.

So if the sales were successful in getting more users to hand over their credit card details, that’s a good thing in the long run. But if they just encouraged users who already pay with Credits to gorge on the virtual currency, then it could mean softness in payments revenue going into the first or second quarter of this year.