One of the highlights in our new Digital in 2016 report on Internet, Social and Mobile usage around the world is the breakdown of each country's Facebook audience by gender and age group (you'll find the full report as an embed at the bottom of this post if you haven't seen it yet).
This data is particularly timely given some other recent numbers.
When Facebook announced its latest quarterly results, there were a few murmurings of a slowdown in user growth, with quarter-on-quarter growth down 50% compared to the previous 3 months.
Of course, with more than 1.5 billion monthly active users – more than 50% more than the platform's nearest rival – it's inevitable that attracting new users will become more and more difficult for Facebook with each passing day.
However, it's not just winning new users that Zuckerberg and co. need to contend with.
Perhaps the more interesting challenge – and the one that the media seem to pick up on the most – is whether Facebook is managing to keep its existing, younger audiences engaged.
It's clear that younger users now represent a far smaller proportion of Facebook's overall user-base than they did just a couple of years ago, but there may be more to that evolution than the media's sensationalist headlines suggest.
A Story That Varies By Region
In developing nations, where many younger people are only just now gaining easy, regular access to social platforms for the first time thanks to cheaper mobile data and more affordable smartphones, Facebook is still a great place to engage those 'youthful' audiences.
For example, if we look at some of the world's biggest marketing opportunities – India and Indonesia are particularly interesting – it's clear that Facebook is still dominated by younger audiences:
In these markets, more than three-quarters of Facebook's audience is under the age of 30. The observant will also note the significant gender imbalance amongst India's Facebook user-base, but that's a topic for a separate post (stay tuned...).
Returning to the age profile story for now though, we start to see more obvious changes in the balance once we move outside Asia; in Brazil and South Africa, for example, the proportion of under-30s drops closer to half:
Millennials' share is the lowest once we get into more digitally advanced nations. It's now clear that – proportionally – Millennials make up a far smaller share of Facebook's active audience in Western markets.
In the USA, barely one-third of Facebook's user-base is under 30, whilst in the UK and Australia, the figures are equally intriguing, coming in at 39% and 41% respectively.
Strikingly, in the USA, there are now 17% more people over the age of 40 using Facebook than there are users under the age of 30.
A Matter of Perspective
Of course, this analysis is based on changes in relative proportions: i.e. the number of young people using Facebook, as compared to the platform's total number of users.
If we look at the absolute number of people using the platform, though, there are clearly still many young people using Facebook. In the United States, there are more than 69 million people between the ages of 13 and 29 using Facebook each month, which equates to roughly 80% of the total US population in that age range.
To put that in even more stark perspective, that's higher than the percentage of 18-34 year-olds who watch traditional television in the US, which Nielsen reported as 76% in Q2 2015.
Let's just let that sink in for a moment:
Despite the sensationalist stories we've seen so frequently in the media, the data show that more Millennials in the United States use Facebook each month (80% of 13-29 year-olds) than watch traditional television (76% of 18-34 year-olds).
That's not quite the end of the story though.
When younger people in these Western nations do use Facebook, they're doing so for quite different reasons than they did a few years ago. Many under-30s in Western markets still check in to Facebook on an almost daily basis, but they're sharing fewer of their personal stories on the platform.
Anecdotally, they see Facebook as a good place to share third-party content and links, and to find similar content that their friends have shared too. However, overall, Millennials' preferences are shifting to newer – and often more private – social channels such as Instagram, Snapchat, and mobile messengers like WhatsApp.
Of course, Facebook, Inc. is well placed the ride this evolution, thanks to its acquisitions of both Instagram and WhatsApp. That's good news for shareholders, but marketers now need to re-evaluate where and when they should be sharing their social updates with these younger audiences.
Our advice in this regard is straightforward:
If you have a story that is worth sharing, and you've told that story well through content, Facebook is still a good place to share it. However, if you're hoping to reach those younger audiences with average content that you've created simply to populate a content calendar, or – heaven forbid – you're relying solely on advertising (i.e. paid promotion) to ensure that those younger audiences see mediocre, interruptive messages, you're likely wasting your marketing budget, as well as your audience's time.
That isn't an excuse to take mediocre stories into new channels like Instagram or Snapchat either.
In our discussions with Millennial social media users, one of the main reasons they cite for moving away from Facebook is the constant 'spam' of irrelevant marketing messages. Their message back to brands is clear: the more you chase younger people with advertising that they're not interested in, the more likely they will be to leave those places where you're annoying them.
Social channels continue to offer exceptional opportunities for those brands who are willing to invest the time to get to know their audiences, and find out what they care about.
However, if marketers are not prepared to put in that time and effort, they don't just risk being ignored; they also put the entire future potential of social media marketing at risk for every other brand out there.
If you'd like to put all these numbers in more context, you'll find them as part of the in-depth country profiles in our complete Digital in 2016 report, which I've embedded below; the individual country profiles, together with those Facebook age profiles, start from slide 62.
It's worth noting that we published similar Facebook audience breakdowns for Southeast Asian countries in our recent regional report too, which you can read for free on SlideShare by clicking here.