Facebook Has a Trump Problem

Can Facebook survive the decline? In pure usage numbers, sure

I’ve recently been personally feeling like Facebook is becoming less and less tolerable given the post-election climate. Not that I enjoyed the screaming back and forth from the 2008 or 2012 elections, but after the 2016 election, things didn’t seem to settle down like they had in the past.

As I heard one person say, I didn’t reconnect with old high-school friends because I think they have insightful political thoughts. Show me pictures of your kids, tell me you won the over-40 flag football city championship, but incessant political rants? No thanks.

I’ve unfollowed some connections, but that’s unfortunate. They have good things to say, too. But with Facebook, it’s all or nothing. In realizing that I’m a focus group of one, I decided to see if there is data to confirm or counter my sentiments. It turns out I’m not alone.

When comparing 2015 to 2016, a recent report by Mavrck shows a 15.14 percent decrease in engagements per post and a 11.41 percent decrease in total number of engagements on their posts.

In addition, numbers earlier in 2016 showed Facebook trying to reverse a 21 percent decline of “original content sharing.” This, from April, was well before the election really heated up.

One cause for this decline in usage appears directly related to users being sick of politics. 32 percent of users in one poll unfollowed someone over their repeated political posts, and 15 percent admitted to unfriending. Even if we assume 100 percent overlap between unfollowing and unfriending, 32 percent of users consuming less content due to unfollowing or unfriending could easily create this decline in engagement. I have a feeling the slide hasn’t hit a low point yet, though.

Another problem for Facebook is that once a user unfollows a connection, I find it hard to believe that there are lots of future refollows to re-engage. It seems like a one-way street.

Can Facebook survive the decline? In pure usage numbers, sure. Instead of 1 trillion minutes of engagement, if it has 900 billion, I think it’ll manage. But what if it doesn’t stop there?

If you’re like me and have been around since before social was even called “social,” you’ll remember brands’ fears around placing ads on user-generated content. A decade ago, brands feared advertising on YouTube and MySpace because they couldn’t be guaranteed that they would not appear next to inappropriate content. Most social networks have done a good job addressing those initial fears.

But a new fear arose post-2016 election. “Alt Right” became a thing. Advertisers rushed to blacklist Breitbart due to potentially inflammatory statements. Whether a brand wants to avoid Alt Right or “Far Left,” does it matter if Facebook has these kinds of statements as a significant portion of its content?

It seems that it does. Brands like New Balance and Under Armour are getting pulled into political conversations on social media.

Grassroots initiatives like Grab Your Wallet are reacting by urging supporters to boycott certain brands for not only the merchandise they carry, but also for the perceived political viewpoints they represent. And while it’s not clear if these initiatives will impact bottom lines, the potential is there.

Since these initiatives are happening on social media, where people are highly impressionable and peer pressure is a factor, a friend posting something inflammatory can have unintended consequences for a brand. Is there a point at which it doesn’t matter who is saying what and brands decide they just want out of the environment because it’s safer elsewhere?

The world’s largest taxi firm, Uber, owns no cars. The world’s most popular media company, Facebook, creates no content. The world’s most valuable retailer, Alibaba, carries no stock. And the world’s largest accommodation provider, Airbnb, owns no property. But when the users who create that media for the world’s largest media company are creating and consuming less, and what they are creating is no better than the most extreme political sites, that media company might have a problem.

Jay Friedman is chief operating officer of programmatic media buying and planning agency Goodway Group.

Image courtesy of martinwimmer/iStock.

Jay Friedman is president and partner of Goodway Group.