Facebook Audience May Be Shifting, Not Shrinking

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Ever since two May survey reports showed Facebook use declining, marketers have been proclaiming the social network an endangered species. But according to a June 10 Advertising Age report, those dire pronouncements may be  premature.

It all depends on how you look at the numbers – and how those numbers reflect the way consumers look at Facebook.

Shrinking?

In 2011 and again a year later, research firm Kleiner Perkins asked 2,000 social media users aged 12 to 64 which specific social media they use. YouTube was up. Twitter was up. Google+ and LinkedIn were up. Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr and Foursquare were up. Even MySpace – anyone out there remember MySpace? – was up.

But Facebook use was down. Not catastrophically, but down nonetheless.

Or maybe it was catastrophic. According to Nielsen research conducted in the US from March, 2012, to March of this year, Facebook use was down by 11 million active monthly users for those 12 months as a whole, and down 16 million from an August. 2012, peak.

“But wait!” says Ad Age. “For every Facebook-is-in-trouble story, there is, of course, a counter-narrative.” And that counter-narrative requires a shift in perspective.

Or shifting?

The real story may be that how people use Facebook trumps survey reports on how many – specifically because they include only PC, not mobile, use.

“It might be tempting to read declining logins to Facebook.com as declining Facebook usage,” says the Wall Street Journal, “but in this case beware of misreading the numbers. “Website use might be heading down, but that’s because of the huge shift to mobile currently taking place.”

Neilsen agrees, noting that the numbers in their report are from PC, not phone, traffic, which they measure separately. While some smartphone users go to Facebook’s website, 99 million checked in on the Facebook app in March of this year – some 37 million more than the previous March and more than double the missing PC users.

Monthly mobile active use worldwide has more than doubled – to 751 million. That’s obviously more than the 16 million US downtick. “But much of that growth is coming from poorer nations,” where purchasing power is lower, a Guardian report says. According to Socialbakers, a company which estimates Facebook traffic for advertisers, however, “in developed markets, the number of users accessing from personal computers is falling, while traffic from mobile devices is surging.” You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

Here in the US, “while the Facebook [mobile] app is increasingly replacing its website as its members’ favourite [sic] way of checking in, the surge in mobile users may not be enough to offset falls in PC visits” – especially in view of new competition from WhatsApp and other social applications created specifically for mobile use.

Time will tell

Ad Age says that Facebook’s still in good shape “for the time being, at least,” but wonders aloud how long that time is.

Remember, before mobile, before Facebook, there were marketing “experts” who were saying, “You have to be on MySpace.” And to rewind to the dawn of digital-marketing time, in the ’90s their forebears were saying, “You have to be on AOL.”

AOL posted some amazing numbers during its go-go years because a lot of marketers really believed the hype about advertising on AOL being almost mandatory. Until, you know, they didn’t.

These days, if you’re a CMO who has been questioning the “You have to be on Facebook” dogma, well, there’s a new faith — “You have to be on mobile” — and continuing to spend on the newly mobile-first Facebook satisfies that imperative.

So for the time being, at least, doom-and-gloom predictions about Facebook may be like those 19th-Century reports of Mark Twain’s death – exaggerated.

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