Is Facebook usage actually in decline?
Going on the officially reported numbers from Facebook, you would assume that it's not, but a rising accumulation of third-party data suggests otherwise, with a new report from eMarketer again showing a decline in Facebook usage, and predicting more of the same into the future.
As you can see here, Facebook's average time spent is trending downwards, with Instagram rising up. That's obviously not so bad for Facebook overall, given that it owns both platforms, but it once again suggests that people are spending less time on The Social Network, which could be an important consideration for your social strategy.
But are those trends really correct? As noted, they do seem to contradict Facebook's reported numbers.
So what's the real truth, and the real gap in data here?
While Facebook's official active user counts continue to rise quarter-on-quarter, various reports have suggested that Facebook engagement - i.e. the amount of time people are spending on the platform - is actually in decline.
- The latest Edison Research 'Infinite Dial' report, released back in March, showed that Facebook has lost around 15 million active users in the US - or 6% of its active audience - since 2017
- In October last year, a report from Piper Jaffray, which incorporated responses from over 8,600 teens from across 48 US states, found that Facebook's popularity is has dropped significantly since 2016, with Snapchat and Instagram taking the lead among younger audiences
- A Pew Research study published in September last year found that 42% of Facebook users had reduced their daily activity and engagement on the platform
Going on these insights, from very reputable sources, you would have to conclude that Facebook is seeing a decline in usage, despite rising usage counts. So why is that?
First off, when you look at Facebook's MAU chart, you can see that the majority of Facebook's growth is actually now coming from outside of North America - where all of the above studies have been conducted.
That, in some part, would explain the discrepancy - but again, Facebook's numbers show that it is still seeing growth in the US, the chart above, even in that lower dark blue section, is not reflecting the declines suggested in this third-party data.
Why is that?
The variance is actually in time spent versus activity. Facebook's listing above shows monthly active users - i.e. people who have logged into Facebook at some time in a month - while all of the above-referenced studies (except the 'Infinite Dial' report) refer to actual time spent on the platform, which is a different measurement. Facebook doesn't report time spent on platform. It used to, with infrequent updates, but it hasn't provided any official update on this stat since 2014, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that US users were spending 40 minutes per day in the app.
In 2016, Facebook did report that usage had risen to 50 minutes per day, on average, but it changed its parameters slightly.
As noted by Zuckerberg in Facebook's Q1 2016 earnings call:
“Today, people around the world spend, on average, more than 50 minutes a day using Facebook, Instagram and Messenger - and that doesn’t count WhatsApp.”
Note the difference here. Facebook did report average time spent, but it switched from Facebook alone to a new 'Facebook Family of Apps' figure. Interestingly, Facebook has also announced that it will switch to reporting its 'Family of Apps' stat in future quarterly reports, which lessens the focus on Facebook itself, and showcases Facebook's massive, broader app reach.
As of January this year, Facebook reported that around 2.7 billion people were using one of its “family of apps” each month. But how, exactly, they're using each is less specific.
What it seems, based on the various data points available, is that people are indeed still logging onto Facebook each day, they're still checking in and getting updates on friends and family and looking through their News Feeds. But they're not spending as much of their time there. Facebook's trying to boost this, through increased promotion of groups and algorithm updates designed to highlight more content from your closest friends. But the data would suggest that Facebook is not as popular as it once was - despite Facebook's official MAU stats showing otherwise.
In essence, neither finding is incorrect, they're just focusing on different aspects.
So what does that mean for your strategy? Well, 37 minutes per day in app is still significant, and Facebook overall audience reach is unmatched, so its not like you should suddenly abandon The Social Network in favor of something else. But it is worth noting the evolving usage trends, and considering where your audience are spending their time.
Facebook remains a key platform for reaching the right people with the right content, and a key element in social media marketing strategies. But people are refining their social media use over time, and are looking for different things in each app. Facebook, increasingly, may be where people are going for updates from friends and family, for example, which may make it less beneficial for your marketing and outreach. Maybe - you need to test to confirm, but it is worth noting the various trends in this respect.