A research report from Roiworld (which, oddly, has nothing to do with ‘return on investment’) making the rounds today talks up the statistic that “one in five teens (19 percent) with a Facebook profile has either abandoned the site or visits it less than they did a year ago. The exodus looks to be a recent trend, with 68 per cent of teens who have shifted away saying that’s happened in the last six months.” (Montreal Gazette).
Why? The reasons many would suspect actually all polled under 20% each - privacy issues, the multitude of Facebook UI changes, or even too many adults (or event parents) on the site. These were all trumped by something that should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever raised, met, or been a teenager: boredom (45%).
The fact teens are perhaps getting bored with Facebook isn’t all that shocking – teen trends come and go, and what holds true for fashion and entertainment may reasonably hold true for online social networking sites.
Also, it’s important to recall that Facebook wasn’t originally designed for (most) teens, but rather was set up as a tool for offline communities of college students to take those conversations and connections online. Over time the site evolved to include the 13-18 year old set, and then large companies, before inviting the rest of us old farts in. It started as a niche network for the college crowd, and evolved into a generic social platform designed to appeal to the masses.
As Facebook got more generic, perhaps it simply started to lose its uniqueness and appeal to the teen crowd.
Assuming this trend continues, and Facebook’s demographics continue to skew older while teens find other places to hang out online, this has downstream ramifications for both Facebook and the agencies and brands who currently pour hundreds of millions of ad and marketing dollars into it. If tweens and teens develop real affinity (and deep investment) in other social networks, they may be less inclined to make the switch to Facebook when they hit college. They may carry over their affinity for other networks to college and beyond, eventually eating into Facebook’s growth and relevance, rendering the current social media megalith nothing more than a 10-year wonder.
Whatever that “next Facebook” is – or, more likely in my view, whatever collection of less-dominate networks arise – that’s where the ad and engagement dollars currently targeted youth on Facebook will start to flow, and where marketers and agencies will need to develop new expertise in order to reach them.
Or…Facebook will adapt, tweak its features and find new appeal among the teen and tween set to retain its claim as the de facto social platform for 75%+ of us, sucking up the social media marketing dollars at an even greater rate than today.
The uncertainty all this highlights is pretty daunting for marketers: Will Facebook adapt and stay the hot online community to be for all ages, or will a new generation flock to other as-yet-unknown social networks and turn Facebook into a giant echo box for big brands and their 30+ year old followers?
This simply reinforces a critical point for anyone involved in social media marketing: don’t bet it all on a single platform or site. Watch the trends and don’t get sucked into the false belief that because “everyone” is hanging out at Facebook now, they always will be. Facebook has only been around since 2004, and open to all for just the past three and a half years, which in Internet terms places it firmly in middle age. It’s replacement could arise in less time than that.
(Inspired by a tweet from @TobyDiva)
Let’s be clear – doing public relations for a large company is tough, especially one that’s under constant and intense media scrutiny at all times. For a couple of years I was part of the PR team that covered MSN and Windows Live at Microsoft, where I got to witness first hand just how insane and stressful the day to day rumor-squashing, crisis-handling, exec-coping chaos of that kind of job can be. As a result I have nothing but respect for the people I worked with who were on the PR front lines day in and day out – it’s more often than not a thankless job with an even worse public perception of it.
Which is why I have to give some serious sympathy to the corporate PR team at Apple. Their job goes beyond the normal insanity and into some bizarro land where the normal rules don’t apply. How so?
- They operate behind a massive, nearly totalitarian wall of secrecy and silence where product leakers seem to be persecuted mercilessly, and where, in fact, almost no one other than the CEO officially speaks.
- They eschew all social media (because frankly, they just don’t *need* it given their unique brand, products, and loyal fans) and constantly send the legal hounds against some of their biggest fan blogs.
- YET they have a CEO who randomly engages in direct, seriously “off message” conversations with angry customers, providing endless fodder for those very same blogs which they otherwise ignore or disdain.
The latest example of that last point is from today, as described over on Gawker and Boy Genius. Here are some highlights pulled from Gawker, where the user gets a bit overly aggressive, but he does so in response to Jobs’ own overly dismissive tone:
Customer: I assume there is no fix then. If this is legit, I have lost all respect for Apple… All our co-workers with Androids are just mocking us right now… This is just sickening.
Jobs: You are getting all worked up over a few days of rumors. Calm down.
Customer: I am really insulted… What arrogance… I just had dinner with 3 people who had iPhone 4s we all cant make calls without dropping. There is no rumors it is reality.
Jobs: You are most likely in an area with very low signal strength
Customer: Stop with jackass comments. I have has every iphone made. They all had a bad signal but this is the so much worse X3.
Jobs: Stay tuned. We are working on it… Retire, relax, enjoy your family. It is just a phone. Not worth it.
“It’s just a phone.” Quite a contrast from this I think:
Yes, Jobs is right. It’s just a phone, please relax, and ignore the last several years of our marketing messaging. As Gawker notes though, this also was a missed opportunity to recognize and engage a truly passionate fan, however angry he might have been at the time. But beyond that, I can’t help but think what a total nightmare these little Jobsian email replies are for the PR team.
Yes transparency is the ideal, and direct access to an iconic CEO like Jobs has only added to the mystique that surrounds Apple. But it falls to the PR team to constantly try and clean up the messes left behind by the CEO and others when they really go off script. When the CEO’s ramblings are taken by the media and a large section of the broader market as something approaching sacred gospel, it just makes the cleanup all the more painful.
Each time one of these weird Jobs email exchanges goes public, and the collective tech blogosphere momentarily freaks out about it, I can almost hear a vast collective groan rise up from the PR (and marketing) teams down in Cupertino. Lots of sympathy (and very little envy) for them.
*Disclaimer: I use and love several Apple products, and also count Microsoft as a current client and former employer.