Facebook, never usually shy in highlighting growth, made a pretty important point in its earnings announcement last month.
The mere fact that it was seeing a "decrease in daily users, specifically among teens" was a landmark statement and one which investors took note of wiping a fair chunk off the share price. When you read it more carefully, you realise that what it was actually saying was Teenagers were still using the site but not to the extent they used to.
The reasons why Facebook might be losing some of this market have been widely discussed with many frighteningly young and forthright bloggers letting rip at the ad model, loss of control of personal data but mostly because their Mum and Dad could see what they were up to. It was always going to be difficult gaining nearly 1.2 billion monthly active users without the the mums, dads, aunts, uncles and family friends of the generation who pioneered Facebook join it too.
Worse than that, they even “got it” and took to commenting, liking and posting as much as their children. No surprise, then that the teen market decided that this was not cool. To be fair it’s not cool for anybody. I’m 43 and having my 73-year-old father comment on my ill-advised photos of my nights out is still a chastening experience.
The message from agencyland however is the brands are not that worried. I spoke to Ed Hartigan, Head of Social at iProspect. He told me that this was an “engagement issue.”
“What we see from teenagers is that they join all the networks and the more there are then the more they join,” he said. “The trouble with Facebook is that it takes time to keep working at it. What we are seeing is the engagement level drop whilst they try new things.”
So this provides an interesting opportunity to look at the next generation of social networks and ponder on the possibilities for the marketing
Well not so much according to Hartigan. They’ve gone to Twitter.
“Twitter gives them more control, more access to cool stuff, more access to their favourite celebrities,” he said. “It works really well with TV and the timelines make more sense.”
It also has a changing perception among the teen market. Tom Ollerton, Marketing Director at Wearesocial told me “Teen usage and perception of a variety of social media networks is changing and Twitter is one that's experienced an uplift from that demographic, who now consider it a more 'important' platform than Facebook, according to recent research. We're also seeing teens using more of messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, WeChat and KakaoTalk.
It seems that the always hard to reach teen demographic is still playing hard to get. Looking at the massive numbers they put out (WhatsApp recently handled over 27 billion messages in 24 hour period) it seems that this is where the cool kids hang out. And yet there’s no ad model because WhatsApp went another way and asked users to subscribe. It’s less than a dollar a year for unlimited use.
KakaoTalk from South Korea and Line from Japan make pretty decent revenues through games and virtual content ( industry figures suggest that Line took $58million in q1 alone this year and in June US-based video messaging specialist Tango launched what looks like a very similar gaming platform. Canada’s KIK has also shown its intention to follow in their footsteps.
Of course messaging services have always been popular. Blackberry’s BBM was the choice in the UK up until recently but as with pretty much everything Blackberry did, they failed to realize the potential and never moved on.
There have been whispers that WhatsApp might turn its hand to content but, for now, that leaves us in an interesting position where the market leader is the only one not pursuing the traditional based model. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
So where does this leave Facebook? Well, not unduly worried I would think. It’s just evolving. Tom Ollerton told me “Don't underestimate the power of Facebook. However, its days of being cool and alternative are long behind us. With the status of market leader also comes the tag of being mainstream, which means that kids will be looking to other platforms for something different. Facebook is still the social media juggernaut, but it's now one of many channels that young people will use to express themselves, rather than being the only one.”