How does Facebook remain relevant in a mobile world?

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I noticed something over the weekend. I can’t recall the last time I visited Facebook.com on my laptop. Even though I sit at a desk, like hundreds of millions of drones every workday — well, most of it, anyway — my Facebook experience is primarily in its iPhone app (ditto for Twitter, in case you were wondering).

The problem for Facebook is not so much how well it ‘monetizes mobile’… That’s Wall Street’s problem (and, by all accounts, it’s doing significantly better than anyone expected.)

On a daily basis, Facebook averages 728-million users (as at September 2013). Of that, 507-million are mobile users (that’s 70%, or 7 out of every 10). Monthly, it has 1.19-billion users (on average), with 874-million of those on mobile (73%).

Crucially, 254-million users (on average, every month) are mobile-only. That means they never ever experience Facebook on the ‘web’. The rate of growth of these mobile-only users has been astonishing. It’s exactly doubled over the past year (September to September), while its overall user base is up 10% (from 1.007-billion). Watch this mobile-only base continue soaring.

Facebook is now all about mobile (whether it likes it or not). In fact, the website is almost completely secondary, and it’ll continue becoming less and less relevant.

The central problem is that — especially on mobile — the job that Facebook is ‘hired’ to do is different. It becomes a time waster, something to fill a gap in the day. By definition, it’s not an immersive experience.

Think about how Facebook has translated its experience on mobile. Practically, all it’s done is taken a website and forced the newsfeed into a responsive view and wrapped it into an app (or onto a stripped mobile website).

But the mobile paradigm is completely different! It hasn’t reimagined anything. Nor has it fully taken advantage of mobile.

As Snapchat (for example) has proved — things are possible on mobile that simply aren’t possible elsewhere (no wonder Facebook tried to buy it for US$3-billion). Think of the flood of messaging apps… any wonder why Facebook messenger has hardly got any traction, despite repeated relaunches?

Ditto with Instagram. It’s a perfect example of taking full advantage of mobile. But Facebook can’t keep buying every competitor for attention — that’s a completely unsustainable strategy. If it bought (or buys) Snapchat, then what? What about the next company to come along?

There’s a lot to do with the user base that, because of its pervasiveness, continues to become less desirable. Why would you want to spend time and share on a platform that your grandparents are using?

Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has preached the ‘mobile first’ mantra. But, there’s still no evidence that it’s really made the shift.

Sure, Wall Street is cheering it on. Mobile advertising is ramping up faster than even the most optimistic forecasts predicted. But this growth (/shift) is going to hit a plateau soon. Saturation is a far bigger problem on mobile — where ads now often account for 75% of a screen — than on a desktop/laptop experience.

The challenge — from a monetisation point of view — is going to be to transition to advertising that doesn’t interrupt and that works. The more invasive, the bigger the impact on engagement.

Don’t think Zuck doesn’t know this… How Facebook responds is going to make the difference between it being relevant two years from now, or slowly turning into (the old) AOL.

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