Declining Facebook usage? Calm down.

There’s a lot of buzz right now about a recent Pew study showing that it’s not terribly uncommon for Facebook users to “take a break” from the site for some period of time. Most of the articles I’ve seen frame the report in the context of showing declining interest in Facebook; several go a step further and cite it as showing that Facebook has little potential to keep growing in the future. The headline on Associations Now asks, “Is Facebook fading?”

My take? Yes, people are starting to take breaks from Facebook. But this is a natural after-effect of the phenomenal growth the network has seen in recent years. To me this seems like nothing more than the inevitable, logical next step for any business that has seen such high growth and adoption levels as Facebook.

Think about it this way. Facebook has been on the rise for several years now. It’s become the absolute giant in its industry – not unrivaled, but unquestionably the default social networking site for Americans. No, not everyone uses it; but look at any group in the United States (and much of the rest of the world), and if you have to predict what the number one social networking site is that people are using, you’re going to say Facebook. In fact, if you have to guess what one website those people use most, your only logical choices will be Facebook and Google. Say what you will, Facebook has become a part of most Americans’ lives.

For years now, we have been reading about the growth of Facebook. Initially, the reports focused purely on numerical growth, and the adoption was dominated by younger age groups. Later, the focus shifted to adoption rates among older users – the middle-aged, Baby Boomers, even grandparents. And all of that was true.

So wasn’t it inevitable that eventually the growth would slow? With acceptance and usage rates as high as Facebook’s, eventually the percentage increases had to start declining. Facebook usage cannot continue to grow forever at the rates we’ve seen in recent years – because, quite frankly, we eventually start to run out of non-users who haven’t yet signed up.

As for people starting to “take a break” from Facebook, doesn’t the mere fact that we are using that phrase indicate how deeply the site has become embedded in our lives? I don’t need to “take a break” from something I don’t do or use much.

So when Pew finds that 61% of current Facebook users say that at some point they have voluntarily taken a break from the site, I say… I am not surprised. Honestly, I’m one of those people. There have been times when I’ve gone a few weeks without using Facebook much; but I’ve come back. My use ebbs and flows, based on numerous factors including many of those cited in the Pew report: other demands on my time, frustration with the types of posts I sometimes see, a sense that perhaps sometimes I am spending a bit too much time there and not enough doing other things.

Think about how long it took Facebook to get to the point where Pew is issuing this report. It has been years in the making. This is not a site that just launched a year ago, got a ton of press and became the latest, newest, bright, shiny object for marketers but where people signed up purely out of curiosity and soon found that it held little interest for them. Most of us had have that experience with one or more sites – Pinterest, Instagram, whatever (can anyone say Second Life?) – and yes, that has been some people’s experience with Facebook. But that is not the case for most people; and that is not what Pew found.

And Pew certainly didn’t find that people are leaving or planning to leave Facebook to move to another social network. In fact, Aaron Smith of Pew Research Center said in a Q&A session about the study, “Interestingly enough, not a single person in our survey said that they quit or took a break from Facebook because they wanted to spend more time with other social networks.”

Does Facebook face challenges? Absolutely. At a bare minimum, it needs to continue innovating and finding new ways to make itself valuable to us. It certainly faces challenges generating revenue. And it needs to turn around a growing reputation for trampling on the privacy and concerns of its users. (At this point, privacy still ranks pretty low on the list of reasons why Facebook users have taken a break at some point; but I predict that number will grow if Facebook doesn’t become more mindful of this issue.)

Still, I’m not reading too much into the Pew report. As a marketer/communicator, I still think it makes sense to maintain an active presence for your organization on Facebook. Two-thirds of online adults in the U.S. use Facebook; there’s nowhere else you can go to get that same level of reach into people’s lives. And it’s a place where people still spend a lot of time. Don’t abandon your presence there, and don’t start making less of an effort to make sure that you’re Facebook posts are valuable and useful and relevant.

But you never should have made Facebook your only online focus. If you’ve let your own website lag behind, use this Pew report as a wake-up call to get your other houses in order as well. Not because they are suddenly more important and Facebook less so, but because they’ve been important all along.

Remember this mantra: integrated communications. Never put all of your efforts in any one place. Always remember that you need to be talking with people in numerous channels: newspapers/magazines, your own website, email, mobile platforms, in-person events, social media. All of these communications channels should complement each other and work together. None of them stands alone.


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