Media Perspective: Facebook suffering from growing pains, not terminal decline

It's got to be hard being an online brand. No sooner have you made it, than you're written off as past it, dead in the water, yesterday's news. With no chance to grow gracefully into maturity, you're finished overnight.

Well, that was the view expressed about Facebook following last week's news that it experienced an apparent 5 per cent decline in users during January. Figures from Nielsen Online showed that, although Facebook remains the UK's most popular social networking site, its 8.5 million unique users fell from 8.9 million in December. This followed 17 months of successive growth on Nielsen's measure.

Cue stories of "Facebook fatigue". Except maybe it isn't that straightforward. In a sure sign that Facebook is growing up and almost becoming a proper media owner, it's got its own stats to throw back at the market.

In response to the bad press, Facebook swiftly issued a statement countering the Nielsen results. Surprise, surprise, its own figures show a rise in the number of UK Facebook users. This is because Facebook uses a different measure to the one applied by Nielsen: that of active users. "Facebook tracks active monthly users, rather than registered user or unique visitors. Active users reflect those who have used the site in the past 30 days," it said.

On this basis, it claims to have added 600,000 users between December and January to reach a total of 8.3 million. So, on either measure (and an industry standard on gauging these things would be handy), it has well in excess of eight million users.

I'm inclined to dismiss talk of Facebook's demise as premature. Even if you take Nielsen's figures as your bible, then what do they show other than Facebook, a socially oriented site, having a quieter January than December? Hardly surprising, given that fewer people go out, organise events and post party pictures in mid-Janaury than in mid-December. Figures showing consistent month-on-month or a significant year-on-year decline would be more meaningful, and worrying, for Facebook than this stat.

Still, we are probably about to witness a slowdown in the Facebook phenomenon. But then it can hardly keep on growing at the rate it has been forever. It's got a big audience, and advertisers are still bombarding it with questions on how they can benefit from the site.

How to use Facebook, rather than the simple scale of its audience, should be of importance to agencies and their clients. Blake Chandlee and his team are saying some interesting things about its social ads platform and involving brands in some of Facebook's content. If they can pull this off, it might, while never experiencing the uncoolness of maturity, at least live to see the end of youth.