Audience Engagement Platforms
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Facebook’s obsession with youth is misplaced: The key to success is in their aging user base

Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement last week that he would be pivoting all Facebook’s future efforts to focus on the youth was tinged with panic at their aging user base. But his attempts to woo young people completely miss the point: teens simply don’t want to share social media with their parents and grandparents.

One of the many stories to come out from the Facebook Files is that the company sees its aging user base as an existential threat. Nearly 40% of Facebook users in the US are aged 45 and older as of January 2021, and young people simply aren’t signing up fast enough to bring that number down.

As a result, the company will be “retooling” its team to make “serving the young adults their north star, rather than optimizing for the larger number of older people,” according to comments made by the CEO to investors last week.

They’re right to be concerned. The internet is littered with the graves of social media platforms which collapsed when their young user bases fled – Bebo and MySpace among them. 

But this comparison misses a fundamental point: Facebook has succeeded where no other social media network has in attracting older people to it, in vast numbers. 1 in 3 people worldwide use the platform every month, and that will give it longevity for at least the next few decades. That’s a long time on the internet.

Why youth are dropping off

This isn’t a new problem for the platform. But it’s one that has accelerated in recent years. In fact, teens on Facebook’s main app are projected to drop 45% over the next two years. Facebook-owned Instagram is still popular among young people for now, but it continues to lose ground to Snapchat and Tiktok.

Debate rages over whether this is a moral decision by teenagers, concerned by the platform’s impact on the world, their privacy and own mental health, or simply a loss of ‘cool’ status. Why would teens want to sign up for an app which all their relatives also have accounts for, but few of their friends? 

It’s important to highlight that all these trends are from US teens. The UK and Europe demonstrate similar patterns. But the platform is wildly popular – and growing – among young people in other parts of the world. India, Indonesia and the Philippines are the fastest growing regions for the social network as mobile adoption speeds up. A quarter of young men aged 18-24 have a Facebook account in India.  

Let’s be blunt here. The unspoken subtext in Zuckerberg’s promise to ‘retool’ is that he wants to lure Western teens back. At the moment, the average revenue per user (ARPU) in the US and Canadian market is $53.56, compared to Asia Pacific where it is just $4.05. 

Even in the long term, the ARPU in non-Western countries will be unlikely to come close to the American ARPU. This is significant because when it comes to a choice between ‘retooling’ for young US users, or preserving functionality for users in non-US parts of the world, Zuckerberg will choose the former.

A misplaced obsession with the next generation

The marketing industry is totally obsessed with young people. While it is absolutely sensible to ensure the people who will be using and buying your products in the future have a good relationship with your brand, this is taken to absurd extremes in the industry. Millions of dollars are spent trying to ‘understand’ the digital habits of generations which are barely out of nappies, and brands try their hardest to tap into the ‘spending power’ of kids who will still be getting pocket money for the next ten years.

Marketers and big brands are undoubtedly a driving force behind Zuckerberg’s re-alignment. The lack of takeup of Facebook accounts among young people is well documented, and it’s probably starting to get a little embarrassing in pitch meetings.

But by shifting attention away from the primary users of the platform, Zuckerberg is risking a huge revenue opportunity. The buying power of people over 50 has never been stronger. Known as the ‘silver spenders’, this age group are the wealthiest age cohort in the world, and are projected to spend $15 trillion by 2030. 

There is an opportunity here to make Facebook the go-to place for ‘grown-ups’. The teams over in Silicon Valley would be much better off streamlining the platform and its features for tools like Marketplace and community Groups rather than endlessly integrating poor copies of other app’s features in an attempt to be cool again.

By focusing on these wealthier older generations, the platform would ultimately become a more effective place for advertisers. Sure, the big brands might say they find masses of young people an attractive prospect. But the bottom line is, it’s the older folks with money actually buying stuff; one of the reasons Facebook has over 6 million SME advertisers using the service.

Of course, it would also be beneficial to the world as a whole to clean up the platform’s experience, so our older relatives don’t get radicalised through conspiracy theories. Less misinformation would be nice too. Zuckerberg’s ‘retooling’ for the youth certainly isn’t going to help the prioritisation of those issues. 

What Facebook should do instead

Facebook isn’t short on options. Given the demographic breakdown of their users, they would be best accepting that kids aren’t going to be hankering to sign up to the same social media platforms as their nan. They could then focus on making Facebook itself simpler and more targeted to grown-ups, who most definitely don’t want or understand Reels.

There’s no harm in dedicating a portion of their resources to chasing the next big thing for teens, if they accept it will be a separate product. Trying to replicate the features of popular apps like TikTok and Snapchat isn’t going to bring young people flocking back. They want a space of their own.

This leaves Meta with two choices: build or buy. Building a new app that would appeal to teens is a tough ask, but working out what the next Instagram is won’t be much easier. Ironically, Facebook did approach Snapchat back in 2013 with a $3 billion bid, but founder Evan Spiegel turned it down…twice.

Is the metaverse the answer? Again if their parents are there too, definitely not.

What does this mean for publishers

I’m not going to kid myself that Mark Zuckerberg will read this or take advice from me. But for publishers who build at least a portion of their marketing strategies on his platforms, understanding what a huge job he has in turning the tide is important.

Publishers still reliant on Facebook for audience growth should be under no illusion that the features they rely on will continue if they don’t serve Zuckerberg’s goals. The big lesson from the last decade is to not trust any promises from tech giants, and to build your own audiences. Any publishers taking money from the platform for the News tab, video development in Watch or anything else should see this only as short term revenue.

If you’re a publisher seeking young audiences, you’re unlikely to find them on Facebook any time soon. But as long as the tools exist to reach them, the grown ups are likely to be sticking around on the platform for a good few decades yet. 

Republished with kind permission of Media Voices, a weekly look at all the news and views from across the media world.