As the social media network prepares to celebrate ten years, Arif Durrani asks if an ageing user base spells trouble.
When Daniel Miller, the professor of material culture at University College London, provocatively declared Facebook, which turns ten next month, "dead and buried" to teenagers in December, he hit a nerve.
Concerns of a discernible exodus of youth from the world’s largest social media network have been mounting in the past year and were initially dismissed outright by the company.
However, in Facebook’s third-quarter earnings announcement, David Ebersman, its chief financial officer, conceded that the site had tracked a "decrease in daily users, specifically among teens". While he was talking about the US market, he also stressed how the self-reported age data can be unreliable.
Still, there was already plenty of smoke before Miller fanned the flames with his study into Facebook usage for 16- to 18-year-olds in eight European Union countries. The Global Social Media Impact Study provided evidence that newer, real-time services such as Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp are fast becoming the preferred online "hangouts" for the younger demographic.
The underlying premise for the teenage migration is as old as society itself: teenagers simply do not like socialising overtly in the same place as their parents. Miller is quoted as saying: "It is nothing new that young people care about style and status in relation to their peers, and Facebook is simply not cool any more."
The migration is considered by some to be significant because teens are often the ones who define what "cool" looks like and pave the way for other generations to follow. There is also concern that a gradual ageing user base will come to haunt the company as the years roll on, placing it in the same battle for relevance more associated with traditional media. Others, however, suggest any apparent teen exodus might be the saviour of Facebook, confirming the site is successfully positioning itself as an essential utility for the world's older, but more affluent consumers.
That such flux has come to light in the year Twitter began ramping up its commercial activity after its initial public offering will not have gone unnoticed by Mark Zuckerberg and associates. Few were surprised last week when Facebook began rolling out its own trending topics, as made popular by Twitter.
So, has Facebook lost its cool?
NO Dominic Grounsell, Marketing Director, Personal, RSA "I don’t think Facebook was ever meant to be cool. It’s a marketing channel where the number of people going back to it more than once a day is currently rising at 4 per cent, suggesting users are only becoming more engaged.
"Any shift in the teen market onto new platforms like WhatsApp and SnapChat just represents a new challenge for Facebook, in terms of innovation to make sure it stays a vital communication platform. When I was in charge of marketing spend at Capital One we spent large amounts on Facebook because of the volume opportunity.
"When looking at Facebook as part of MoreThan's strategy we are still in the test phase. It is not a direct response-only strategy, we are looking at an approach more balanced between branding and direct response. It offers an increasingly engaged and valuable audience."
YES Stefan Bardega, Head Of Digital, MediaCom "Teens have never wanted to hang out with their parents. Facebook should make acquisitions and keep them separate (as far as the consumer is concerned), as it has done with Instagram.
"Mobile apps need to be focused on one or two core tasks. File sizes and screen sizes determine this. Apps that try to integrate too much functionality push the boundaries on file size (making the app slow) and inevitably the user experience and design suffers.
"So Facebook should not be trying to integrate too much functionality into the Facebook app to woo teens. It still has a massive amount of revenue opportunity to unlock (video ads in Facebook, ads on Instagram) so it will be able to do this for some time to come. You only have to look at Google and Youtube to know that this strategy can work: the challenge is then how you connect all the disparate assets commercially of course."
NO Mat Morrison, Head Of Social Media Planning, LiquidThread, SMG "Facebook isn’t a ‘cool’ brand. Nike and Vans are cool brands; if teens stop aspiring to own them, then adults will probably stop buying them too. This isn’t true of Facebook.
"Teen use of social channels is mostly instant messaging - and that's being eroded by new mobile apps. (SMS use is down among this audience too.) That's not the case for the majority of Facebook's audience. Anyway, no-one uses Facebook to market to teens. We use it to market to a mainstream adult audience. So why should we care?"
MAYBE Andy Spry, Media Manager, We Are Social "What we are seeing can be viewed in two ways - firstly, a much smaller number of 13-17 year olds are using Facebook year-on-year (this has been proven). Secondly, a much smaller proportion of Facebook is teenagers, compared to other age groups.
"When Facebook first launched in 2004, there was very little competition in the social media space compared to today, with only Myspace as the main competitor. This meant that Facebook adopted an entire generation of Internet users in one clean sweep. What this means is that Facebook has a huge, loyal 18-34 audience that have grown up and developed alongside it. Over the years, this audience of highly-engaged users were the ones who helped provide so much insight to marketers on the way we use social media. The problem is that the scale of Facebook's initial boom makes the current teen audience look pitiful.
"Facebook no longer has its timely lead any more, as the social media space has become so large. We see that 40 per cent of Twitter users are under 25, 80 per cent of We Heart It's users are under 24 and 23 per cent of teens now view Instagram as their social network of choice.
"Facebook's teen population is now becoming the same as other platforms, not because it's a bad platform but because teens have more choice, and can't be on every network at once. In the coming years, I expect Facebook's demographic balance to even out, with usage similar between teens and 18-24s, while its initial tidal wave of users continues to age. But Facebook is still the biggest game in town for advertisers, and will be for some years yet."
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