How the Tech Giants Make Their Billions
At a glance, it may seem like the world’s biggest technology companies have a lot in common.
For starters, all five of the Big Tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Alphabet) have emerged as some of the most valuable publicly-traded companies in the world, with founders such as Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates sitting atop the global billionaire list.
These tech giants also have a consumer-facing aspect to their business that is front and center. With billions of people using their platforms globally, these companies leverage user data to tighten their grip even more on market share. At the same time, this data is a double-edged sword, as these same companies often find themselves in the crosshairs for mishandling personal information.
Finally, all of these companies have a similar origin story: they were founded or incubated on the fertile digital grounds of the West Coast. The company that has the weakest claim to such origins would be Facebook, but even it has been based in Silicon Valley since June 2004.
Sizing Up the Tech Giants
For all of their commonalities, it seems that there is less of a mold for how these tech giants end up generating cashflow.
But before we get to how Big Tech makes its money, let’s start by looking at the financials at a higher level. The following data comes from the 2018 10-K reports filed last year.
|Company||Revenue (2018)||Net Income (2018)||Margin|
|Apple||$265.6 billion||$59.5 billion||22.4%|
|Amazon||$232.9 billion||$10.1 billion||4.3%|
|Alphabet||$136.8 billion||$30.7 billion||22.4%|
|Microsoft||$110.4 billion||$16.6 billion||15.0%|
|$55.8 billion||$22.1 billion||39.6%|
|Combined||$801.5 billion||$139.0 billion||17.3%|
Together, the Big Five tech giants combined for just over $800 billion of revenue in 2018, which would be among the world’s 20 largest countries in terms of GDP. More precisely, they would just edge out Saudi Arabia ($684 billion GDP) in terms of size.
Meanwhile, they generated a total of $139 billion of net income for their shareholders, good for a 17.3% profit margin.
How Big Tech Makes Money
Let’s dig deeper, and see the differences in how these companies generate their revenue.
You are the Customer
In the broadest sense, three of the tech giants make money in the same way: you pay them money, and they give you a product or service.
Apple (Revenue in 2018: $265.6 billion)
- Apple generates a staggering 62.8% of its revenue from the iPhone
- The iPad and Mac are good for 7.1% and 9.6% of revenues, respectively
- All other products and services – including Apple TV, Apple Watch, Beats products, Apple Pay, AppleCare, etc. – combine to just 20.6% of revenues
Amazon (Revenue in 2018: $232.9 billion)
- Amazon gets the most from its online stores (52.8%) as well as third-party seller services (18.4%)
- Amazon’s fastest-growing segment is offline sales in physical stores
- Offline sales generate $17.2 billion in current revenue, growing 197% year-over-year
- Amazon Web Services (AWS) is well-known for being Amazon’s most profitable segment, and it counts for 11.0% of revenue
- Amazon’s “Other” segment is also rising fast – it mainly includes ad sales
Microsoft (Revenue in 2018: $110.4 billion)
- Microsoft has the most diversified revenue of any of the tech giants
- This is part of the reason it currently has the largest market capitalization ($901 billion) of the Big Five
- Microsoft has eight different segments that generate ~5% or more of revenue
- The biggest three are “Office products and cloud services” (25.7%), “Server products and cloud services” (23.7%), and Windows (17.7%)
The remaining tech giants charge you nothing as a consumer, so how are they worth so much?
You are the Product
Both Alphabet and Facebook also generate billions of dollars of revenue, but they make this money from advertising. Their platforms allow advertisers to target you at scale with incredible precision, which is why they dominate the online ad industry.
Here’s how their revenues break down:
Alphabet (Revenue in 2018: $136.8 billion)
- Despite having a wider umbrella name, ad revenue (via Google, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Ads, etc.) still drives 85% of revenue for the company
- Other Google products and services, like Google Play or the Google Pixel phone, help to generate 14.5% of total revenue
- Other Bets count to 0.4% of revenue – these are Alphabet’s moonshot attempts to find the “next Google” for its shareholders
Facebook (Revenue in 2018: $55.8 billion)
- Facebook generates almost all revenue (98.5%) from ads
- Meanwhile, 1.5% comes from payments and other fees
- Despite Facebook being a free service for users, the company generated more revenue per user than Netflix, which charges for its service
- In 2018 Q4, for example, Facebook made $35 per user. Netflix made $30.
So while the tech giants may have many similarities, how they generate their billions can vary considerably.
Some are marketing products to you, while others are marketing you as the product.
Which U.S. Generation Wields the Most Cultural Power?
Visual Capitalist’s first-ever Generational Power Index looks at which U.S. generation holds the most cultural influence in American society.
Which U.S. Generation Wields the Most Cultural Power?
This year, our team put together Visual Capitalist’s inaugural Generational Power Index (GPI), which looks at power dynamics across generations in America.
We considered three categories in our quest to quantify power: economics, political, and cultural. And while it turns out Baby Boomers dominate when it comes to economics and political factors—cultural influence is a different story.
Here’s a look at which U.S. generation holds the most cultural power, and how this power dynamic is expected to shift in the coming years.
Generations and Power, Defined
Before we get started, it’s important to clarify which generations we’ve included in our research, along with their age and birth year ranges.
|Generation||Age range (years)||Birth year range|
|The Silent Generation||76 and over||1928-1945|
|Gen Alpha||8 and below||2013-present|
Using these age groups as a framework, we then calculated the Cultural Power category using these distinct equally-weighted variables:
With this methodology in mind, here’s how the Cultural Power category shakes out, using insights from the GPI.
Share of Cultural Power by Generation
Overall, we found that Gen X captures the largest share of cultural power, at 36%.
|Generation||Cultural Power Share|
|The Silent Generation||8.8%|
*Note: figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.
Gen X is particularly dominant in the film and TV industry, along with news media. For instance, over half of America’s largest news corporations have a Gen Xer as their CEO, and roughly 50% of Oscar winners in 2020 were members of Gen X.
Baby Boomers come in second place, capturing a 25% share of cultural power. They show particular dominance in traditional entertainment like books and art. For example, 42% of the authors on the NYT’s best-selling books list were Baby Boomers.
However, these older generations fall short in one critical category—digital platforms.
The Dominance of Digital
Why is digital so important when it comes to cultural power? Because digital media becoming increasingly more popular than traditional media sources (e.g. TV, radio).
In 2020, Americans spent nearly 8 hours per day consuming digital media, nearly two hours more per day than they spent with traditional media.
This divide is expected to grow even further over the next few years. With younger generations dominating the digital space, Gen X may soon lose its place as the top dog of the culture category.
Celebrity 2.0: The Social Influencer
As audiences flock to online channels, advertisers have followed suit—and they’re willing to spend good money to gain access to their target demographics.
In fact, spend on influencer marketing has steadily increased in the last five years, and it’s expected to reach $13.8 billion by the end of 2021.
This shift to social media advertising is redefining the notion of celebrity, and who reaps the financial benefits of content creation. For instance, six-year-old Vlogger Like Nastya made an estimated $7.7 million per month from her YouTube channel in 2020. And keep in mind, this estimate is purely based on YouTube revenue—it doesn’t even include corporate partnerships and/or merchandise sales.
With all these shifts occurring, culture as we know it is at a crossroads. And as we continue to move towards a digital dominant society, those who hold power in traditional realms will either adapt or pass along the torch.
Download the Generational Power Report (.pdf)
Ranked: The Most Popular Paid Subscription News Websites
Many consumers are reluctant to pay for their news, but those that do turn to trusted sources. Here’s a look at the most subscribed to news websites.
Ranked: The Most Popular Subscription News Websites
While paywalls are becoming increasingly more popular among news websites, most consumers still aren’t willing to pay for their online news.
In fact, a recent survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism reveals that only 20% of Americans pay for digital news, and of those that do, the majority subscribe to only one brand.
This begs the question—which news outlets are audiences willing to pay for?
Using data from FIPP and CeleraOne, this graphic looks at the most popular news websites across the globe, based on their total number of paid subscriptions.
*Note: This report relies on publicly available data, and should not be considered an exhaustive list.
The Full Breakdown
With 7.5 million subscriptions, The New York Times (NYT) takes the top spot on the list. 2020 was an exceptionally strong year for the outlet—by Q3 2020, the NYT had generated the same amount of revenue from digital subscriptions as it had for the entire year of 2019.
|1||🇺🇸 The New York Times||6,100,000|
|2||🇺🇸 The Washington Post||3,000,000|
|3||🇺🇸 The Wall Street Journal||2,400,000|
|4||🇺🇸 Game Informer||2,100,000|
|5||🇬🇧 Financial Times||1,100,000|
|6||🇺🇸 The Athletic||1,000,000|
|7||🇬🇧 The Guardian||790,000|
|9||🇬🇧 The Economist||516,000|
|12||🇬🇧 The Sunday Times||337,000|
|13||🇬🇧 The Telegraph||320,000|
|14||🇺🇸 The Atlantic||300,000|
|15||🇮🇹 Corriere Della Sera||300,000|
|16||🇫🇷 Le Monde||300,000|
|17||🇺🇸 The Boston Globe||270,000|
|18||🇦🇷 La Nacion||260,000|
|21||🇺🇸 Los Angeles Times||253,000|
|23||🇺🇸 The New Yorker||240,000|
|25||🇧🇷 Folha de S.Paulo||236,000|
|26||🇸🇪 Dagens Nyheter||208,000|
|27||🇺🇸 Business Insider||200,000|
|31||🇨🇦 The Globe and Mail||139,000|
|34||🇫🇷 Le Figaro||110,000|
|35||🇺🇸 Chicago Tribune||100,000|
|36||🇺🇸 Star Tribune||100,000|
|38||🇫🇮 Helsingin Sanomat||100,000|
The Times is the most popular by a landslide—it has over double the number of subscriptions than the second outlet on the list, The Washington Post. Yet, while WaPo is no match for NYT, it still boasts a strong following, with approximately 3 million paid subscriptions as of Q4 2020.
Japanese outlet Nikkei ranks number one among the non-English news websites. It’s the largest business newspaper in Japan, mainly focusing on markets and finance, but also covering politics, sports, and health.
Legacy Papers: Which Websites Come From Traditional Media?
Most of the websites on this list stem from traditional media. Because of this, they’ve had years to establish themselves as trusted sources, and win over loyal readers.
Interestingly, more than half of the outlets included in this ranking are at least 100 years old.
|Publication||Year Launched||Age (Years)|
|🇬🇧 The Guardian||1821||200|
|🇬🇧 The Sunday Times||1821||200|
|🇫🇷 Le Figaro||1826||195|
|🇬🇧 The Economist||1843||178|
|🇺🇸 Chicago Tribune||1847||173|
|🇬🇧 The Telegraph||1855||166|
|🇺🇸 The Atlantic||1857||164|
|🇸🇪 Dagens Nyheter||1864||157|
|🇺🇸 Star Tribune||1867||154|
|🇦🇷 La Nacion||1870||151|
|🇺🇸 The Boston Globe||1872||149|
|🇮🇹 Corriere Della Sera||1876||145|
|🇺🇸 Washington Post||1877||144|
|🇺🇸 LA Times||1881||140|
|🇬🇧 Financial Times||1888||133|
|🇺🇸 Wall Street Journal||1889||132|
|🇫🇮 Helsingin Sanomat||1889||132|
|🇧🇷 Folha de S.Paulo||1921||100|
|🇺🇸 The New Yorker||1925||96|
|🇨🇦 The Globe and Mail||1936||85|
|🇫🇷 Le Monde||1944||77|
|🇺🇸 Game Informer||1991||30|
|🇺🇸 Business Insider||2007||14|
|🇺🇸 The Athletic||2016||5|
Yet, undeterred by these well-established outlets, a few scrappy websites made the cut despite a shorter history. Four out of the 38 websites are less than 20 years old.
The Athletic is the newest outlet to make the ranking. Established in 2016, the outlet’s target demographic is die-hard sports fans who miss the days of in-depth, quality sports writing.
The Need For Trusted Sources
Amidst the global pandemic, issues involving misinformation and fake news have helped reaffirm the important role that trusted news sources play in the dissemination of public information.
With this in mind, it’ll be interesting to see what the future holds for digital media consumption. With paywalls becoming increasingly more common, will consumers jump on board and eventually be more willing to pay for their news?
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