Has Facebook got the MySpace blues?

According to statistics released during its latest earnings call, all is well in Facebook land. The brand has more than 1 billion active users globally and around 665 million of them are daily users. Facebook says the same is true for the UK where monthly user numbers continue to climb, now at 34 million people.

Mark Ritson

But there are murmurs of disquiet in the broader marketing community about Facebook’s continued user-base growth. In April, Socialbakers released data that suggested monthly user numbers were down by 4 per cent in both the UK and US, but quickly pointed out that its sample sizes were too small to be trusted. Nielsen made similar headlines last month 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.

Again, caution has to be applied to these figures because Nielsen also recorded a significant increase in Facebook users accessing via mobile app. The billion dollar question is duplication. How many of the millions using the Facebook app also visit the website on a monthly basis? When it comes to unduplicated reach, sometimes 1 + 1 equals 1.

The other key issue is teenagers. Facebook claims that teens usage is steady but accepts many are supplementing Facebook with other social media. A new study from the Pew Center shows Facebook penetration of American teens is flat at an impressive 94 per cent but with sites like Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr rapidly growing among the same demographic. Facebook will be more perturbed at the focus group data also collected by Pew as part of its study, which revealed “waning enthusiasm” for Facebook among many American teens.

That ties in with a study from Piper Jaffray, which again confirmed Facebook’s almost total penetration among American teens but showed that only one third of that audience regard it as their most important social network. Twitter (30 per cent), Instagram (17 per cent) and Tumblr (4 per cent) are gaining preference, though in the case of Instagram, the revenues still return to Facebook eventually.

Teen’s Most Important Social Networks April 2013 (% of respondants)

  Fall 2012 Spring 2013 Change
Facebook 42% 33% -9%
Twitter 27% 30% 3%
Instagram 12% 17% 5%
Google+ 6% 5% -1%
Tumblr 3% 4% 1%
Pinterest 2% 2% 0%
Other 2% 4% 2%
Don’t use social networks 7% 6% -1%

marketingcharts.com, source: Piper Jaffray & Co.

With a phalanx of new startups like Kik, Whatsapp and Path also growing in popularity and positioning themselves against Facebook, it’s clear that all vestiges of first mover advantage have been exhausted. The brand’s web-based origins and ageing user base garner a significant competitive disadvantage against today’s newly emerging, purely social alternatives. Where once Facebook charted only user acquisition, it must now look over its shoulder and defend those same users against new entrants. Facebook has a marketing fight on its hands.

That’s a problem because in my view Mark Zuckerberg and his company is bereft of marketing talent. Facebook is the story of a brilliant idea well executed but with many marketing mistakes along the way. It’s clear that in the different competitive environment that awaits it, Facebook will have to also significantly beef up its marketing muscle to prosper, and perhaps survive, in the years ahead.

For starters, Facebook has to stop talking about a billion users because the brand no longer has a single global market, it has two. In immature markets like Asia and the Middle East where Facebook penetration hovers around 5 per cent, it’s business as usual with the key objective of penetration as the goal. But in mature markets like the UK, where user levels exceed 50 per cent of the population, it’s time to accept that recruitment is impossible, attrition unavoidable and focus on usage rather than users as the core objective.


“Look out Facebook!” Rupert Murdoch recently tweeted, “Hours spent participating per member dropping seriously. First really bad sign as seen by crappy MySpace years ago”. The ‘Dirty Digger’ is absolutely correct. The next year for Facebook will be crucial but it won’t be a battle fought over user numbers – not even Facebook’s biggest sceptics expect that number to drop in the next year. Fickle teenagers who might switch their attention to rival sites and a penetration ceiling of 50 per cent both point to the same, single metric by which to predict the fate of Facebook – hours per month per user.

The magic number is 400. That’s the current number of minutes an average user spends on Facebook each month – it’s almost identical irrespective of whether they access the website or via an app. If that average monthly usage time drops below that threshold – expect trouble ahead.