Is Facebook Really in Terminal Decline?

Few ‘birthdays’ can have generated us much angst as Facebook’s recently celebrated 10th.The weeks before and after that anniversary saw not one, but two predictions that the social giant was about to enter a terminal decline.The first originated from the European-based Global Social Media Impact Study, which came to the conclusion that ‘Facebook isn’t just on the slide – it is basically dead and buried.’The reason for this stark prophesy? The flight from the platform by older teenagers to alternative services such as Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and SnapChat. This audience doesn’t care that these alternatives don’t provide the sophisticated functionality of Facebook – they just want to get away from a platform that is now populated by their parents and has ceased to be ‘cool’, according to the report.Further bad news for Facebook came with the release of a report from Princeton University that predicted that the social network would barely make it into its early teens. By comparing the adoption and abandonment dynamics of social networks to the dynamics that govern the spread of infectious diseases, the report’s authors predicted that Facebook would lose 80% of its users by 2017. The evidence for their hypthosis? The decline in search queries for Facebook – a decline that started in 2013. A similar decline heralded the rapid demise of MySpace.But not all reports are painting such a bleak picture. A study from social media analytics agency Socialbakers, which analysed Facebook pages reaching 960m fans, came to contrasting conclusions.They found that 13-24 year olds saw a growth in 29% in terms of reach across 2013, and absolute reach to 18-24 year olds, still the largest group on Facebook, increased by 39% across the same period. Their conclusions? Teens are using an increasing profusion of platforms but they’re still sticking with Facebook.So what’s the true story? Is the new advertising darling of marketers going to disappear as suddenly and dramatically as it burst upon the scene? Or have reports of its demise been greatly exaggerated?Well, clearly, some things in the Facebook garden are not entirely rosy. Usage did fall by 3% in the second half of 2013 and growth in mature markets has slowed to a snail’s pace – now just 1% in the US, for example.But to contrast this, other metrics are in rude health. Take advertising revenues, which reached record levels at the end of 2013, and not at the expense of the CTR.And, of course, Facebook’s reaction to declining usage by the younger age cohorts has been to buy the platforms they’re migrating to – first Instagram and now WhatsApp. However, this isn’t necessarily the whole solution – neither platform has yet been properly monetised and WhatsApp is a particular conundrum as its users have been promised an ad free experience.But perhaps the most telling statistic from a premium brand perspective is the that although teenagers may be using Facebook less often, or even abandoning it all together, the more lucrative 35-44 age bracket saw incredibly strong growth. Which demographic is worth more to your brand?The challenge for Facebook over the coming years is that it may become a victim of its own success. As the platform becomes less about engaging users with free organic content and becomes more of paid for channel to reach existing fans and their friends, so increasing amounts of ads might switch off users in their droves.The key is for Facebook not to get too greedy but to keep their ad offerings relevant, proportionate and timely. That way the doomsayers may well be proved wrong and Facebook will live on to a ripe old age.