Reports of Facebook's demise are premature - again
Talk of a dip in Facebook’s popularity has its roots in problems of measuring app usage.
There is a tale, probably apocryphal, about a hotel porter who was called to deliver a bottle of champagne to George Best’s suite. After reading in the morning papers about how badly the football star was doing, the porter presumed the beleaguered Manchester United legend was drowning his sorrows.
When the door opened to reveal a beauty queen on the bed covered in nothing but the thousands of pounds Best had just won in the downstairs casino, the porter could think of nothing to say other than quipping, “So, George, where exactly did it all start going wrong?”
Mark Zuckerberg could well have cause to feel the same. According to some commentators the latest figures on Facebook usage appear to be showing a dip in popularity, most particularly noted among the youth market.
The Guardian went as far as revealing the site has lost 9m regular users in the United States and 2m in the UK. A YouGov poll went further claiming Facebook usage was down 9% in the UK and in the United States a Pew Research Center survey also revealed that American teenagers are less enthusiastic about the site. It was reported as claiming teens are switching to other social media channels, noting that teen use of Twitter had risen from 16% a year ago to nearly a quarter (24%) today.
Running the stories past a spokesperson for Facebook, however, a very different picture emerges. The latest investor presentation for end of Q1 2013 shows the site has 665m daily active users across the globe with modest growth in the United States and Canada and, to a lesser extent, Europe being offset by larger gains in Asia and Rest of the World. The global figure was up, roughly 10%, from 618m daily active users in Q4 2012.
Furthermore, the spokesperson claims, the Pew research quoted by several news sources also points out that Facebook is the most-often used social media site for 81% of teens compared to 7% for Twitter, and that 94% of teens have a Facebook profile, compared to 93% this time last year.
Perhaps most telling was a correction the Guardian printed to its story on the decline in Facebook usage which pointed out, among several technicalities, that the figures from Nielsen were not clear on how well Facebook app users are accounted for.
In a nutshell, this is where Facebook is claiming the discrepancies are. Old-style research could easily look at web use and then mobile-based web use, but monitoring in-app activity is far harder.
Those conducting most of their Facebook activity through a smartphone app are far harder to monitor than those on the web and, Facebook surmises, mobile devices are most popular among younger users on the move. Hence David Ebersman, Facebook’s CFO was recently quoted as saying, “Younger users remain among the most active and engaged users that we have on Facebook”.
Facebook’s defence of its position certainly holds true for Alan Blair, strategy director at Tribal DBB. He believes that commentators are waiting for history to repeat itself, only to find it probably won’t.
“I think the days of social media sites getting millions of users early on and then people losing interest has gone, but people keep expecting the same thing to happen to Facebook as happened to Bebo or MySpace,” he says. “Facebook’s strength is that they’re not afraid to recode the site to give it new features and a new look, so it keeps on evolving. Just about everyone’s on it because it’s so useful for updates and posting pictures. People might well use other sites that have specialities, like pictures on Instagram, but they’re diversifying. They’re still using Facebook.”
As for the user figures affecting campaigns, Blair is dismissive of claims of reduced traffic and users.
“We reckon around two thirds of Facebook activity is through mobile now and there’s a lot of difficulty in tracking that,” he says. “Ironically, mobile is the main driver for us to make sure Facebook is always a big part of any campaign we run. It’s ubiquitous for us; whether it’s advertising or simply distributing content. It’s very useful for digital marketers because you can target by age and gender but also interests, so I can’t think we’d run a campaign without Facebook being a part of it.”
So losing regular users does not seem to be a problem for Facebook at present. Whereas in the past the rise of one social media channel appeared to send a warning shot across the bows of an established player, Facebook is so commonly used that it can survive being supplemented by Instagram, What’s App, Twitter and other players reporting massive usage surges.
Where it does face challenges is in incorporating advertising into its mobile offering, a challenge made harder by the problems of measuring app usage effectively. That’s not just a problem for Facebook, but it’s one that’s made more difficult by the social network’s sheer size.