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Is Facebook’s demise grossly exaggerated?

It’s been a tumultuous week in Silicon Valley. First, Apple reported disappointing results amidst lower than expected iPhone sales and growing impatience over its next big product. Second, Google raised the white flag on its USD 12.5 billion Motorola acquisition, keeping the patents (perhaps always the main reason behind the purchase) while selling the rest to Lenovo for a bargain at USD 3 billion.

Then it was Facebook’s turn to announce its 2013 Q4 earnings, and it didn’t disappoint. Quarterly revenues were up 63 per cent from last year driven by strong growth in mobile advertising. Overall in 2013 Facebook chalked up USD 7.9 billion  in revenue and USD 1.5 billion in profit. Not bad at all.

Facebook’s quarterly results indicate that it continues to grow despite recent noise around declining organic reach and disappearing teens, (articles appearing in Forbes and The Guardian, among several others sites and blogs). In fact, Facebook enters 2014 as arguably the world’s largest scaled online targeting opportunity across multiple markets, particularly in the mobile space, which now makes up over half of its total advertising business. In fact, the earnings results means Princeton University’s recent report on Facebook’s forthcoming demise may have been grossly exaggerated.

Facebook must have been pleased with its results, particularly given recent industry debate over the last few months.

What is the industry debating about? 
There has been much discussion on Facebook’s repositioning as a reach proposition rather than as a pure play social network. In other words, Facebook now sells advertising primarily on its ability to use its extensive scale and data to accurately target vast numbers of people around most of the world; this is in contrast to its historical sales pitch on building fan bases, engagement via News Feed posts, and periodic paid ad boosts. While organic reach remains, it has diminished significantly simply due to more people and more content fighting for an increasingly small space on your mobile News Feed.

So, the only way to guarantee what was previously free News Feed reach is to buy Facebook ads or to create incredibly compelling content that satisfies Facebook’s secretive and constantly evolving algorithm.

The second industry debate centers on whether teenagers are abandoning Facebook for other largely parental-free social networks like SnapChat. According to the Global Social Media Impact Study, Facebook is essentially dead to teens. While acknowledging some decline in usage, Facebook deny any such mass teen exodus. In reality, nobody really knows but Facebook, although recent research from Pew and others suggests the answer may lie somewhere in between, for instance, teens are still on Facebook. However, they’re using more social networks to socialise with different people in different ways for different reasons. And regardless, they may all come back when they are older. Facebook has simply become too ingrained in too many lives to totally abandon.

What’s a marketer to do?
From a media perspective, Facebook will need to demonstrate better RoI than the other big display networks fighting for online video and mobile budget. Facebook is arguably well positioned given recent Datalogix and Kantar studies. And of course it still has some remaining albeit diminishing extra earned media bounce. Marketers will also need to rethink their overall user experience architecture.

Based on your target audience, do you still want to drive people to Facebook from your TV ads, or will other destinations give you greater social bounce and engagement? Should Facebook be your main online content hub, or simply another distribution destination, supported by more cost-effective and integrated content management systems? If so what type of content best resonates on Facebook and optimises your chances of algorithmic success? As consumers, particularly teens, evolve their usage of Facebook, how will you evolve your efforts?

Ultimately it boils down to what are you really trying to achieve, what do your customers really want, and is Facebook a good place to do it?

The author, Norm Johnston, is the Chief Digital Officer at Mindshare Worldwide.

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