“It’s is Dead to Us. Facebook is something we all got in middle school because it was cool but now is seen as an awkward family dinner party we can’t really leave.” That’s how a 19 year-old American student described his generation’s relationship with the social media site in a widely circulated blog. This is not really a revelation. His views were evidenced by a teenage trend away from Facebook that was first identified by Pew Research in 2013 (and confirmed by the social media site themselves). In October 2014, a study by GlobalWebIndex found that Facebook’s user base grew 2% in the previous six months. The low growth is hardly surprising when you consider their user base is close to saturation point. However, the significant stat from the study was that teens were using the channel much less. 37% of young respondents said that they were ‘bored’ with the social network. Over the same period Tumblr saw an increased use of 120%. Popular with teens (and ad agency folk), its uptake has been driven by the humble ‘gif’. The ancient web-format has gained a new lease of life with highly sharable animated gifs of cats and celebrities. Facebook has been aware of their teenage problem for sometime. They understand that young, early adopters are fickle when it comes to their digital channel choices. And thanks to mass smartphone adoption, that switch is happening faster than ever. There has been, for example a shift in messaging from SMS to What’sApp. The teen messaging channel of choice has quickly grown to over 700m users – nearly 3 times Twitters’ active user base. Fundamentally, teenage audiences are most active in messaging channels – and they’ll go where it is easiest, cheapest but above all, they’ll go where their friends are. A few years ago, they were using BBM. Before that, MSN was popular. It’s interesting to see, therefore, that the one Facebook product that remains relevant is their messaging app. Another GWI study found that adoption grew by 50% in 2014, across all age groups. Whilst messaging is still the driver of teenage online activity, the significant change has been the growth visual messaging. For today’s teens, pictures are better than words. This new found popularity of has been driven by smarphone cameras and apps such as Snapchat. Another GWI study found that the picture app grew 57% – the fastest of any messaging app. UK teens especially love Snapchat, with 39% of them saying they use it compared to 15% globally (GWI). There’s an element of teenage rebellion about Snapchat. Part of attraction is that their parents (who are all on Facebook these days) don’t see the point of it. However Snapchat is also a bona-fide messaging app. Whilst it has gained a reputation as a place for ‘sexting’, it is an unwarranted tag. A 2014 University of Washington study found that the behaviour represented only 1.6% of users. The main use for Snapchat are is not to share amazing portraits or beautiful sunset pictures, but to share quick snaps with added comments or scribbles. The real winner in the visual message channels is Instagram. Sure, it’s good for showing nice filtered photos, but spurred on by hashtags, selfies and numerous celebrity accounts, it has become the channel of choice for teenagers. By the end of 2014 it had overtaken Twitter’s user base and it continues to grow. Understanding the teen challenges, Facebook has been pretty shrewd in addressing them. When they bought Instagram for $1bn in 2012, observers thought it was an excessive sum for a company with just 13 people. In hindsight, given the level of uptake, that price seems like a bargain. After sniffing around Snapchat for a while (who reportedly turned them down), Facebook ended up buying What’sApp for $19bn in 2014. Facebook are aware that ultimately, no site is safe from a mass exodus of their users. Just look at the fate of Friendster or Myspace (and BBM or MSN for that matter). However, if Facebook are simply going to buy their most popular messaging competitors, then the chances are, they’ll still be going in a few years time.
Where are all the teenagers going? Instagram and Snapchat it would seem …
A recent Pew Internet study, was followed by aFacebook announcement, that teenagers have largely lost interest in their network. Those of us in the business have been observing this trend for some time. And for brands, this could be a problem. Just as they are starting to see some ROI from Facebook ads or promoted Tweets, this hard-to-reach audience has left the building.
Of course, this is nothing new, and if you understand teenage behaviour, it should come as no surprise. Like most users, teenagers are driven by need, and not technology. As a teenager you want to communicate (not with your parents of course) and find your place amongst your peers. That communication has always been done in school break-time, or by passing notes in class. As mobile phones took off, SMS became the communication tool, and MSN online (fast and almost free). Then it switched to BBM. For a short while it was Facebook and then Twitter. And now, it’s Instagram and Snapchat. The latter is seeing 350m photos uploaded per day, which is equal to that of Facebook.
In many ways, these Instagram and Snapchat are perfect for teenage users. The key drivers are cost, speed and where their peers are. Teenagers aren’t looking to write long prose, whatever they do needs to be done as cheaply as possible and they will tend to drift to the channels that don’t include their parents (and they have no channel loyalty). Instagram and Snapchat also come with the added bonus of pictures. For many, a picture expresses far more than a few words. For some observers though, perhaps there is a little too much expressing. Whilst Instagram is more public, Snapchat has been accused of being a place where teenagers are ‘sexting’ each other. We have no evidence if this is true or not, but it is important to keep in mind that whenever younger people adopt a new comms channel, there is always some kind of moral backlash. BBM was blamed for triggering the UK riots in 2011. Facebook was a corrupting influence, SMS was seen as ruining our language. Whatever the choice, the medium will usually be blamed. The reality is that it is purely a communication channel and they are essentially neutral – they can either be a force for good or bad. It depends on who/how it is used.
Perhaps the best way to understand the teenage engagement with Snapchat is this article by Rory Murdock. Whilst adults view photographs as permanent, or even nostalgic records, teenagers think of most photos as temporary, ethereal and worthless. Think of Snapchat like the notes passed around at school. Short comments that are instantly disposable.
One thing is certain about all this. The teenage channels are constantly changing. Don’t expect Snapchat or Instagram to dominate a few years from now and advertisers will probably still be chasing their audience. But largely speaking the behaviour stays the same, but the channel in which it’s done will change.