Facebook’s Challenger Brands: Does Facebook Need to Worry?

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Two recently-published academic papers foretell the imminent implosion of Facebook. One review from Princeton employed disease modeling to suggest that Facebook could lose up to 80 percent of users in the next three years. The other was from University College London (UCL), a leading UK university.

In UCL’s instance, Professor Daniel Miller wrote a blog of his ethnographic research exploring social media use among teens. Concluding that for this group “Facebook… is basically dead and buried,” Professor Miller was observing that dreaded moment when a teen discovers that mom wants to friend them on Facebook and the mental terror of how to respond that ensues.

In truth, we think the likelihood of Facebook going down the tubes in the next few years is remote. Yet Professor Miller’s remarks do prompt the question: What exactly is happening to Facebook and other social media among the U.S.’s younger population today? Given Facebook’s greater strength among older teens, we focused on 18-20s.

It’s Mobile, Mobile, Mobile

Mobile is rapidly becoming the preferred entry point to social media. According to comScore, users 18-20s currently access the following sites via mobile:

  • Facebook (52% of the time via mobile)
  • Twitter 54%
  • Instagram 68%
  • Snapchat 98%+

As such, trends based on computer-use only would be misleading. We decided to probe comScore’s unified mobile and computer data which became available from February, 2013. To do this, we constructed a map comparing social media use from February to December 2013. This is what the map revealed:

Social Media Map Trends Across Feb-Dec 2013 for 18-20s

The diagonal dotted red line is the equilibrium line: Above this line, sites are growing for this audience; below the line they are in decline. If Facebook was in rapid decline, it wouldn’t currently enjoy its exclusive position in the top right corner of the map, which is precisely where a towering social media site would reside. Nevertheless, given that Facebook is slightly below the equilibrium line, its grip on this audience appears to be slipping slightly: over the period we were reviewing, Facebook’s monthly reach dropped from 93% to 86%.

A Crucible of Burgeoning Social Media

Arguably, what’s more interesting on this map is what is happening in the bottom left-hand corner of the chart. The sites highlighted in a blue font each have:

  • 10% reach of 18-20s.
  • A growth rate of +100% among 18-20s over the observed period.
  • An affinity index among 18-20s greater than 200+.

This is the map’s hot area, a crucible of burgeoning social media.  Five sites that particularly merit a shout-out include:

  • Vine Labs.
  • Snapchat.
  • Mashable.
  • Stack Exchange.
  • Reddit.

Each of these sites has enjoyed 150% growth or more over the last year. My favorite is Vine. It would be superficial for anyone to dismiss Vine as just a device that enables its users to post 6-second video vignettes online. Vine is attracting some extremely creative wunderkinds.

One such wunderkind is Zack King, who has curated a wide array of 6-second videos on Vine, displaying nothing short of visual wizardry. For example, in just six short seconds Zack demonstrates how to jump directly into a locked car, or how to fly into bed and leave your clothes on top of the bedclothes, or how to freeze your smartphone in mid-air. For any budding creative ad directors who might think a 30-second video is too short a time-length for their creative outpourings, take a look at Zack King’s companion YouTube site.

The Future of Aspiring Competitors

While the sky isn’t falling for Facebook as some have predicted, new entrants in the social media universe have impressive features, with content and growth rates to match. Facebook’s previous strategy has often been to acquire the best-in-class of these aspiring competitors, but if these new players can maintain substantial growth rates, in two to three years’ time some could become challenger brands to the once-invincible Facebook.

However, rather than becoming mega-brands, it’s probably time to realize that social media is maturing and segmenting, and so it’s more likely they will establish new major niches in this market. If nothing else, broader social media like Facebook (for consumers) and LinkedIn (for businesses) will have a key role as our de facto, all-encompassing address books.