Mark Ritson Columnist

Mark is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Melbourne Business School and is recognised as one of the world's leading experts on brand strategy. His clients have included McKinsey, PepsiCo, Donna Karan, Johnson & Johnson, Dom Perignon, Baxter, De Beers, Krug, Ericsson and WD40.

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The unfriending of Facebook: Why there is plenty not to ‘like’

Published 20 November 2013 11:22, Updated 20 November 2013 11:23

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The unfriending of Facebook: Why there is plenty not to ‘like’

The rumours started back in April when Socialbakers, the social media research organisation, released data indicating that Facebook’s monthly user numbers were down by 4 per cent in both the UK and US. The data quickly made global headlines but Socialbakers backtracked fast on their findings, citing their puny sample sizes as unreliable.

Nielsen made similar headlines a few weeks later by reporting that Facebook’s monthly website users had peaked last year and had subsequently tumbled by as much as 10 per cent in several key markets according their data. Once again there was a catch, because Nielsen also reported a significant rise in those accessing Facebook via mobile app. The total number of monthly visitors to Facebook was again uncertain.

‘Waning enthusiasm’

In May, the respected Pew Centre published a report suggesting that while Facebook retained an impressive 94 per cent penetration of American teenagers, there was growing evidence in Pew’s qualitative research of “waning enthusiasm” among this demographic towards the social media site.

Apparently sensitive to the growing theory that teenagers were growing disaffected with his brand, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the idea in July. “Based on our data, that just isn’t true,” he said.

But the murmurs of trouble among teens continued. In August teenager Ruby Carp wrote a blog on Mashable entitled “I’m 13 and None of My Friends Use Facebook”. It was entirely anecdotal evidence, but the global media coverage of Carp’s perspective gave it credibility and her sentiments appeared to ring true with many fellow teens.

Last month we finally got hard evidence that the teen disaffection theory was, in fact, accurate. Piper Jaffray published the results from its semi-annual report on American teenagers and provided substantial evidence of a swing away from Facebook.

Plummeting popularity

When asked what the most important social media site was, Facebook was nominated by only 23 per cent of the sample. That’s an alarming figure because, for the first time, it relegates Facebook behind Twitter and level with Instagram (which, to be fair, is owned by Facebook). It’s even more remarkable given Facebook’s apparent decline over the past 12 months. The same research a year ago had 42 per cent of teens rating Facebook the most important and 33 per cent six months earlier. Facebook’s popularity isn’t just declining among teens, it’s plummeting.

This month we finally had confirmation from Facebook itself that there was trouble at the younger end of the user-base. Facebook’s chief financial officer, David Ebersman, confirmed in a recent quarterly earnings call that while the social network had retained its overall penetration “we did see a decrease in daily users, specifically among younger teens”.

Why focus on the teenagers so much, you might ask? They occupy a special place in the social media world because of their usage rates and their alpha user status. Teens use social media a lot and, as such, can often be viewed as a harbinger of broader changes in the overall behaviour of the total social media audience.

Confounding issues

When you examine why teens are switching off from Facebook three equally confounding issues emerge. First, the brand is struggling with its lack of targeting. For years Facebook has boasted of a billion-plus users and amazing reach across the population of Australia and its other target countries. But inherent in that mass market are the dynamics of trying to serve multiple market segments with a single brand that is fundamentally about connecting people together. Put more simply, kids don’t like to hang out on a site where their mums and teachers are also active. “By the time we could have Facebook, we were already obsessed with Instagram. Facebook was just this thing all our parents seemed to have,” as Ruby Carp put it in her blog.

The second problem for Facebook is one of its own making. Many younger users are growing weary of the commercial intrusion of advertising into their social interaction. Facebook’s IPO forced them to monetise their brand. But that monetisation process, while successful in the short term, is turning off many of the consumers and that, in the long term, might cause major problems for the brand.

The third problem is the oldest issue of all – barriers to entry. Facebook is just under 10 years old. Like all the other social media sites it enjoyed very low barriers to entry in its establishment. But that’s a double edged sword because now as the dominant player in the social media space it is not just competing with Twitter – it has a hoard of new and as yet uncreated rivals to contend with. Startups like Kik, Whatsapp and Path also growing in popularity and these new brands are positioning themselves against Facebook.

There have been two chapters in the Facebook story. In the first the brand grew by acquiring users. In the second, which has lasted for barely a year, it focused on retaining the users it had and maintaining monthly visit times. Now chapter three begins – Facebook must try and re-acquire the teens that it is clearly beginning to lose from its site. It’s an urgent issue because if Facebook gets a reputation for being uncool, no amount of savvy marketing will save the day.

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