As various reports have suggested, Facebook usage has been in gradual decline over the past few years, as users, more wary of protecting their privacy, switch to messaging apps and ephemeral tools to share their various thoughts and updates. And while Facebook has continued to add to its overall user count, individual activity levels have slowly reduced - Facebook has sought to correct this by boosting the utility of private groups and promoting tools like Facebook Stories to align with usage trends. But again, research has suggested that these efforts have not yet taken hold.
And now, new insight has suggested that Facebook is well aware of this decline. As reported by The Information, Facebook's internal data science team has determined that, unless Facebook can shift the usage trends, 'the blue app' could eventually face an existential crisis.
As per The Information:
"[Facebook researchers] warned that if enough users started posting on Instagram or WhatsApp instead of Facebook, the blue app could enter a self-sustaining decline in usage that would be difficult to undo. And although such “tipping points” are difficult to predict, they should be Facebook’s biggest concern."
It's an interesting insight into a trend which, up till now, has largely been based on external speculation and survey data. That's not to say external reporting is inaccurate, but there can be a significant difference in what people say when you ask them a survey question, and what they actually do. That's, largely, been the gap in understanding over what's actually happening - every survey might say that people are using Facebook less, but if the app continues to add users, it's hard to determine which data point is more indicative.
In fact, both may well be correct, with Facebook adding more and more users in more regions, while people in established markets look to other apps.
Facebook's decline, reportedly, has been underway since the rise of Snapchat, which saw an increase in popularity largely through its positioning as 'the anti-Facebook'. With more parents, and grandparents, signing up for Facebook, Snapchat's ephemeral content approach held significant appeal for younger audiences, as did the app's 'not-so-user-friendly' format, which kept many older users out.
Facebook knew this - which is why, in 2013, Facebook sought to purchase Snapchat for $3 billion, which Snapchat declined. Facebook uses an internal tool, called Onavo, to track usage trends and shifts, in order to stay ahead of the game. Onavo is why Facebook made its offer for Snapchat, and why it purchased WhatsApp in 2014. Following Snapchat's rejection, Facebook then re-doubled its efforts to push Snapchat out of the market, launching its own Stories tools and duplicate functions, in an effort to stem the flow of younger users away from Facebook's tools.
Using Onavo, Facebook could see where the trends were headed, it knew it had to counter Snap, or face a more significant threat.
And those efforts worked - though not exactly how Facebook would have expected. In 2016, Facebook-owned Instagram launched Instagram Stories, which has gone on to overtake Snapchat in overall usage, essentially stealing Snapchat's idea. But Facebook's own Stories option has flailed - Facebook Stories now has more than 500 million users across Facebook and Messenger, but with more than 2.38 billion MAU on Facebook alone, that's not exactly a high usage rate. People are simply not that interested in Facebook Stories as a sharing option.
Of course, Facebook will win out either way - if users start switching to WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram instead, Facebook still owns that attention. But Facebook makes the majority of its revenue from its flagship app, so a decline in usage for Facebook is significant. Yes, Facebook will still make plenty of money, and will still be able to serve a lot of ads on its other platforms. But the gradual decline of Facebook is still a big blow, and something the company will obviously work to rectify - if it can.
As such, you can expect to see Facebook continue to push Stories and groups, and to make Facebook itself a key element in the eventual rollout of its Libra cryptocurrency, in order to keep people coming back to Facebook more often. As noted by The Information, Facebook is well aware that there is a clear tipping point at which Facebook will not be able to recover, and will fade into obsolescence. That'll take some time, but the trends are pointing to such a shift.
That doesn't, of course, mean that you should switch focus from Facebook for your marketing efforts, but it is definitely worth noting the trends, and maintaining an awareness of where your audience is engaging.