Why Facebook wants you to have more friends

We tend to think of Facebook as an 800 lb. gorilla, lumbering toward an IPO and world dominance in social networking. The user growth (350M+) has indeed been impressive, but the question I have is about user engagement. Is it as strong as before? Is Facebook experiencing problems with retention?

The question seems pertinent because Facebook very recently made a big push for users to find more of their friends on Facebook through use of their friend finder tool. This has gotten a lot of attention. Andrew Chen tweeted: “wow, huge “find friends” ad at the top of Facebook today. Wonder if they are trying to juice their growth?”

I think the answer is that the user growth is just fine… it’s engagement and retention where Facebook is trying to move the bar.

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed quite less usage from a many friends who used to be very active on Facebook. Based on my friend’s list I would say that the regular users from a year ago are a lot less active on Facebook now. Additionally, the most active users in my friendfeed are not even hopping on Facebook to update their status, but rather are doing so via Twitter.

So I’m betting that Facebook has a problem with user engagement. Revenue does not come from adding new users, but retaining engaged users. The more engaged users are, the more time the spend on the site and the more pages they see. The more pages they see, the greater the number of ads that Facebook serves. This certainly is not rocket science.

So Facebook tries to solve the problem of decreasing engagement and retention.

But how?

I wouldn’t be surprised if someone asked the data warehouse to analyze the user activity and find out more about the most active users and how they differ from less active users. And I’m sure they were told something like this.

  • Active users average 37 more friends than inactive users
  • Active users are 5 times more likely to receive an e-mail than inactive users.

Hence the push of the friend finder tool and  hence the messages you get on the sidebar to send someone an e-mail. Take a look at who they want you to send a message to. It’s invariably someone who is not very active on Facebook.

So these are the tools that Facebook is using to boost engagement and aid retention, but do they work? Hard to say, but it’s important to remember that correlation is not causation. Trying to artificially create user behaviors without understanding the motivations behind them seems superficial and short-sighted. Engagement and retention come from understanding the the customer and the why. Facebook seems to be focused on the how.

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5 responses to “Why Facebook wants you to have more friends

  1. Engagment is a big deal and hard to measure. It’s the pink elephant of social media. As we as individuals and as advertisers, particularly brands, get excited about social media and jump in with both feet we’re not really able to decide what impact it is really having.

    For sure Facebook has an up-hill climb to deal with to go IPO and will do whatever it takes. So I think pushing us to make more “friends” is one way to do that for sure.

    Incidently, I have noticed a drop off in activity among my friends. However, I do think people are just doing more stalking and less talking.

  2. Good point on the stalking. I ran into a friend last week and she told me that she enjoyed my fb status updates… I told her that I never saw anything from her and she admitted to being a lurker.

    So, I guess the question there is… is stalking a sign of less user engagement or just another segment of users? I can imagine a community of talkers also supporting a community of lurkers, but my sense is that this is not ultimately the path to sustainable growth.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook is very aware of these lurkers and is trying to draw them into the conversation.

  3. I turned off all the apps and games about 2 months after I got into FB. They’re not engaging. And as a rule, I ignore the adverts suggesting I engage with people. They have no real social value. I know friend x didn’t send it. What I find value in, is not how FB generates revenue,staying connected with people I already know.

  4. absolutely on target.

    altho user growth is phenomenal, that also creates the “newbie” problem (small # of friends at first, limited motivation to engage frequently).

    by juicing the engagement & retention with incentives to add more friends they are reducing the time it takes for newbie Facebook users to get into a habit of regular use, and thereby increasing ad revenue.

    in contrast, LinkedIn never really figured this out and altho they’ve improved have nowhere near the frequency of use and a rather sparse average connection per user.

    excellent post & analysis.

  5. Pingback: “Public” should not be the default

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