If We're All So Darn Sick of You, Facebook, Why Can't We Quit You?

A Few Theories About The Social Network's Apparent Endurance

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Credit: Kelsey Dake

Facebook is one of the digital world's great shape-shifters -- it's endlessly changed its user interface, its business strategy and (notoriously) its privacy policies over the years -- but one thing that's remained constant: We all love to complain about it.

In fact, hinting at, or outright predicting, the eventual demise of Facebook has become something of an obsession for a lot of the media. Business Insider, for instance, recently ran a post titled "You Have to Believe This Chart Makes Mark Zuckerberg Slightly Anxious." The graphic came from Kleiner Perkins' Mary Meeker and it plots the results of a survey of 2,000 social-media users, age 12 to 64, who were asked in 2011 and then again in 2012 which social-media products they use. YouTube, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, Foursquare and even MySpace all gained. But Facebook actually shrunk a bit.

Though surveys about self-reported media usage obviously should be taken with a grain of salt, the chart still would seem to jibe with data Nielsen released last month, which said that Facebook shed more than 10 million U.S. users from March 2012 to March 2013 -- going from 153 million monthly uniques to 142 million.

But wait! For every Facebook-is-in-trouble story, there is, of course, a counter-narrative. As The Wall Street Journal's Tom Gara wrote in response to the Nielsen figures, "While some web traffic numbers might be down, it's a mistake to read this as a peak in usage. The company is undergoing an amazing boom in mobile usage."

And the revenue is following. As my colleague Cotton Delo reported last month, 30% of Facebook's first-quarter ad revenue came from mobile ads, up from 23% last quarter. The company pulled in $1.46 billion in revenue last quarter, vs. $1.06 billion in the same quarter a year ago.

So, basically: Facebook usage in the U.S. might be down, or maybe it's just flat, but mobile is growing, and revenue is up. Which means, what, exactly? What's missing from our big-picture understanding of Facebook? Some thoughts:

We don't have access to the right data, really.

Speaking of self-reporting, Facebook itself claims "1.11 billion monthly active users as of March 2013." That, of course, includes users who visit Facebook as infrequently as once every four weeks or so -- the kind of users who think of Facebook as less of an immersive hangout and more as a sort of monolithic directory that's occasionally useful for tracking people down (because "everyone's on Facebook"). A utility, of sorts.

Facebook's other most recent self-reported stat -- "655 million daily active users on average in March 2013" -- offers a little more insight, but not much. Mainly because Facebook doesn't break that number down country-by-country (though it does concede that "79% of our daily active users are outside the U.S. and Canada"). And also because "daily active" ... well, that covers everyone from the status-updating, picture-posting addict to the time-strapped user who, say, quickly checks her Facebook inbox every morning as a matter of habit.

Facebook stalks people into being "active."

You know the Morrissey song "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get"? That's Facebook's modus operandi. If you don't log in for a while, Facebook guilts you into visiting with its vaguely desperate "You have notifications pending" emails, which name-check friends and colleagues who have "posted statuses, photos and more on Facebook." In one recent two-week period, for example, during which I stayed away from Facebook, I got four such emails (on May 19, 23, 28 and 29). In essence, Facebook is using the oldest trick in the digital-marketing book -- email -- to keep those users who are sick of Facebook from abandoning it entirely.

Facebook's big mobile push lets it be a "must-spend" in a whole new way. But for how long?

"You have to be on Facebook." Self-appointed social-media and marketing "experts" still say that sort of thing, even though it's increasingly clear that Facebook is helpful for certain kinds of products and pretty useless for others.

There's still a lot of experimental marketing spend flooding into social media, but by becoming, almost overnight, a company with significant mobile revenue, Facebook can now also partake of the ongoing mobile-marketing frenzy/paranoia.

Remember, before mobile, before Facebook, there were marketing "experts" who were saying, "You have to be on MySpace." And to rewind to the dawn of digital-marketing time, in the '90s their forebears were saying, "You have to be on AOL."

AOL posted some amazing numbers during its go-go years because a lot of marketers really believed the hype about advertising on AOL being almost mandatory. Until, you know, they didn't.

These days, if you're a CMO who has been questioning the "You have to be on Facebook" dogma, well, there's a new faith -- "You have to be on mobile" -- and continuing to spend on the newly mobile-first Facebook satisfies that imperative.

For the time being, at least.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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