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Facebook in fight for teen attention against social media rivals SnapChat and TikTok

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Wilderness questions Facebook’s commitment to keep children safe online and considers whether it is acting responsibly

This blog post focuses on the business challenge Facebook in particular faces in retaining young users’ engagement. This is not to brush over the incredible harm and risks posed by Instagram and other platforms, specifically for young women. This is something I’ve written about before and will do again.

In documents recently uncovered by The New York Times, Facebook demonstrated why losing the attention of younger teen users was one of the biggest threats facing the business. “If we lose the teen foothold in the US we lose the pipeline,” reads the internal memo from last October.

It seems Facebook had hoped Instagram would engage early high school users (aged 13-15) in a bid to replenish Facebook’s aging user base. But the company was aware of the threats to its business long-term from the likes of TikTok and Snap. This all comes as the backdrop of Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen’s explosive testimony to Congress in the US, in which she claimed that Facebook had continued to try and keep kids hooked on Instagram while knowing that the app caused issues around body comparison among teenage girls. Not only that, but Facebook has recently shelved controversial plans for an Instagram-for-kids app, seemingly rolling back following outcry from a range of media and political figures.

The issue for Facebook is clear. In a recent report by Piper Sandler, some 35% of teenagers claimed their favorite social app was Snapchat, closely followed by TikTok with 30%. Some way further back was Instagram with just 22% of teenagers. This slide is going to be hard for Facebook to reclaim, despite the company spending almost all of its entire global marketing spend (reportedly $390m this year) on targeting this early high school audience through digital advertising. There’s an irony in Facebook, the company that has built a $900bn business off the back of being a digital advertising behemoth, having to spend close to $400m annually on digital advertising to try and retain its relevance.

Snapchat, unlike Facebook and Instagram, has continued to innovate focused almost entirely on engaging a youth audience, creating tools and features that keep them on the app longer. It is building out its AR features to become the fastest way to share a moment, while also enforcing stricter advertising guidelines and promoting initiatives including its Get to the Polls platform to create a seemingly safer online experience for young people.

As has been widely reported, TikTok has seen almost stratospheric growth, with young people flocking to the app for the dance videos but seemingly staying for ‘Tiktok made me buy it,’ ‘Learn on TikTok’ and more. The app now has more than one billion monthly users, all of whom have been sucked into the endless streams of content on their For You Page (FYP), with one in four of all users not found on other platforms.

Not only is Facebook losing ground to other platforms, it is also having to contend with changing behaviors from these younger users who are prioritizing messaging and the ability to engage in smaller, often closed, groups. Mark Zuckerberg admitted as much in a public post back in March 2019, saying: “Today we already see that private messaging, ephemeral stories and small groups are by far the fastest-growing areas of online communication.” It seems that despite this awareness of the challenge, Facebook has lost ground on providing young users with tools and features to keep them engaging in ways they want to be.

Facebook seems to be in a bind. It is losing its “pipeline” of younger users, who are migrating away from Facebook and seemingly preferring other platforms to Instagram. Previously it has been able to hold off challenges to its dominance through an aggressive acquisition and copycat strategy, ensuring it cloned any successful functionality quickly and bought any outstanding upstart competitor apps that could compete (namely WhatsApp and Instagram.) But with congressional challenges in the US and court cases in Europe around issues of privacy, misinformation and anti-competition, this previously successful strategy may be harder to pull off than ever before.

Let’s hope this drives more competition and innovation across social. Perhaps Facebook and others are waking up to the fact that keeping younger users safe and giving them the tools to express themselves in ways that are both safe and engaging might not just be good business, it might also be good for business.

Tom Jarvis, chief executive officer and founder at Wilderness.

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