OPINION: Facebook must look to emerging markets for growth

Facebook will be forced to focus on expanding its user base in emerging markets if founder Mark Zuckerberg is to realise his dream of connecting the world, with reports suggesting use in developed markets is nearing saturation.

According to social media data website SocialBakers, December was an unusually bad month for Facebook in terms of user numbers in certain of its key markets, losing 600,000 users in the United Kingdom – the sixth biggest Facebook user base globally – and 668,740 in the United States – the world’s most active Facebook nation.

In the UK, Facebook has already attained 53 percent penetration across the population. SocialBakers points out that 15 percent of the population is below 13 years of age, thus not permitted to use the social media site, while 16.5 percent of individuals are aged over 65, an age bracket typically showing no more than 4 percent usage. Bearing this information in mind, the data monitoring site has concluded: “This effectively means that UK is inflecting in terms of numbers at near full penetration on Facebook.”

Results are similar for the US, where 169 million unique users frequent Facebook each month – forming 54 percent of the population – fuelling speculation that the US may also be nearing saturation in terms of its user base.

Meanwhile, the countries seeing continuous increasing growth in the number of Facebook users are emerging markets – with Brazil ranking second in the world for the number of active users in December, with 65 million users, and India coming in third with 63 million.

Importantly, these figures reflect only 32 percent and 5 percent population penetration respectively, prompting the obvious conclusion that in order to continue the extraordinary growth that the social media site has experienced since its inception in February 2004, Facebook will have to focus on expanding its presence in emerging markets.

This is particularly relevant in the African context, where Facebook does not yet seem to have caught on that there is an enormous untapped market waiting to be connected. In a continent with a population of one billion, Facebook has thus far achieved just 4.3 percent penetration in Africa.

After Facebook reached the one billion user mark worldwide in October of last year, Mark Zuckerberg announced that he was “committed to working every day to make Facebook better for you, and hopefully together one day we will be able to connect the rest of the world too.”

In order to achieve this lofty ambition, Zuckerberg and his team will have to take note of the numbers. Facebook is no longer a service solely for consumers living in Western developed countries.

There is a world of individuals living in emerging and developing markets who want to get online, who want to connect, and who are being largely ignored by the strategists and policy makers at Facebook.

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