Social Media

What small businesses can learn from Facebook’s teen battle with Snapchat

Fi Bendall /

Facebook has had to deal with some big problems over the past couple of years. All the while, one of its main rivals, Snapchat, has been making serious inroads into becoming the preferred social network for teenagers. Can Facebook afford to lose the next generation of social media users?

The numbers look worrying for Facebook. A forecast released last week by eMarketer predicted Snapchat will continue to steal away young users from Facebook.

“This year, for the first time, less than half of US internet users ages 12 to 17 will use Facebook via any device at least once per month,” eMarketer predicts.

“In 2018, the number of US Facebook users ages 11 and younger will decline by 9.3%. Additionally, the number of users ages 12 to 17 and 18 to 24 will decrease by 5.6% and 5.8%, respectively. This is the first time eMarketer has predicted a decline in the number of US Facebook users in those age groups.”

While some of those young users are making the shift to Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, many of them are moving onto Snapchat.

That generational shift from Facebook to Snapchat is nothing new; it’s been happening now for a few years. But the fear for Facebook is that the shift is accelerating. This could mean a demographic hollowing out of Facebook’s user base if the young people using Snapchat stick with Snapchat and don’t graduate or return to Facebook.

It’s also exacerbating Facebook’s ‘uncool’ image, with kids basically saying they don’t want to be on a social media network their parents are on.

The problems with being big

Facebook is facing up to being a mega business and the past year has seen the social media giant in damage control mode. That’s reflected by Mark Zuckerberg’s statement at the start of the year that his personal challenge for 2018 is: “to focus on fixing these important issues. We won’t prevent all mistakes or abuse, but we currently make too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools. If we’re successful this year then we’ll end 2018 on a much better trajectory.”

It says a lot about Facebook’s mindset as a business at the moment. It’s a company on the back foot dealing with serious real-world problems — from its role as a platform for fake news through to the onerous task it now has of policing and moderating all manner of content, from live streamed suicides through to harassment and bullying.

Facebook’s staggering growth over the past five years plays a part in this. In 2012, Facebook hit 1 billion monthly active users (MAUs) worldwide and by mid-2017 it had gone over 2 billion MAUs worldwide. This rate of growth appears to have put strain on the management of the platform, leading to the need to further bureaucratise. In testimony before the US Senate last year in relation to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, a Facebook executive told senators the social media giant would double its numbers for staff dealing with security risks from 10,000 to more than 20,000 by the end of 2018.

Facebook is far away from the days when it could claim to be an agile startup, moving nimbly to innovate and delight its users. It is a massive company with a large bureaucracy servicing multiple services that has to do more than pay lip service to ideas like corporate and social responsibility. It’s too big and too consequential to get away with just making the right noises anymore.

Another factor is that Facebook is a mass platform, whereas Snapchat is still largely targeted at the young and young-at-heart. Snapchat does not have to be all things to all people; it just has to be the sometimes perplexing and goofy thing it is that has made it popular with young people.

But it’s not as if Snapchat doesn’t get things wrong too. Only last week there was massive uproar from users after its interface was redesigned. The redesign is said to be part of a strategy by Snap Inc. (Snapchat’s parent company) to make Snapchat a more user-friendly platform for older people. But hardcore users disapproved, with plenty sharing their disappointment on places like Twitter. This might just be a misstep for Snapchat, or it could open the door for more young users to opt for Instagram as their preferred platform. Or the redesign could take with older users.

The lesson for small businesses …

There’s a lesson in Snapchat’s teen battle with Facebook for small businesses: find the overlap where you do something really well and your big competitor doesn’t, and then innovate and refine that user/customer experience. Use your strength to exploit your competition’s weakness. Woo and cultivate that base of users/customers until they become advocates for your business.

Your big competitor might be too stretched to properly deal with your challenge in an expedient manner, by which time you could have a small but significant chunk of their business. The strength of your customer/user experience, and the loyalty you build with those users, might put you in a position to truly challenge your big competitor’s dominance. Just as Snapchat is tentatively trying to do in its ongoing battle against Facebook.

NOW READ: How Facebook’s “scrappy younger cousin” Snapchat became social media’s pop sensation

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Fi Bendall

Fi Bendall is chief executive of The Female Social Network and a Westpac/AFR 2015 100 Women of Influence, who was described by CEO Magazine as 'The CEO's Secret Weapon'. An expert and pioneer in digital strategy, she has over 23 years’ experience in the digital and tech sectors.

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