Facebook In The Age Of Mobile-Only

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Just 21% (268 million) of Facebook’s users access the service from desktop-only, and both that percentage and number are falling as Facebook grows, according to new stats from Facebook’s Q1 2014 earnings report this week. Meanwhile Facebook’s mobile-only user count is now at 341 million, or 26.7% of its total userbase, and those figures are quickly climbing.

What this means is that if a Facebook feature doesn’t exist on mobile, it’s becoming less and less relevant.

Graph Search, suggested events, Friend List and Interest List editing, and bulk News Feed management are few features missing from Facebook mobile. And that’s after Facebook’s VP of corporate development Vaughan Smith said that since the start of 2012, if product was proposed without a mobile version, it was sent back to the drawing board.

When Facebook was IPO’ing, the word was that it needed mobile. Then over the next few years it’s strived to become a “mobile-first” company. On the business side, that’s coming along quite nicely. 59% of ad revenue now comes from mobile and that’s growing too.

But these new device stats from its Q1 2014 earnings call (that Benedict Evans recently highlighted) show Facebook needs to learn how to be a “mobile-only” company, whose products can stand on their own without a desktop accompaniment.

Four Ways To Build For Mobile

The problem is how to cram all that functionality into the small screen. Facebook has been trying four strategies for feature releases on mobile, each with its own issues:

Redesign

Redesigning existing features lets Facebook immediately put new functionality in front of its enormous mobile user base. However, it has to tread carefully and only push more subtle changes it’s sure people will like. Too much of a shock could scare people away. Facebook took this route with the roll out of the multi-feed selector that lets you see dedicated News Feeds for Pages, Friend Lists, and content types. It’s available on the default feed view of Facebook’s smartphone apps, but only if you pull down to reveal the “News Feed” title tile that’s actually the folded-up selector button. This camoflaged integration doesn’t disturb users, but they might not notice it either.

photo (1)Build And Bury

Building new features into Facebook’s main apps immediately gives them an install base, but not a userbase since they end up buried in the interface. This makes them easy to ignore or forget about. For example, a year ago Facebook launched Nearby Places, a mobile Yelp competitor, but stuffed in its smartphone apps’ navigation menu. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people don’t even know it exists. Now Facebook is trying the same thing with its new proximity sharing feature Nearby Friends. I find it useful, but am still forgetting about it since its also buried.

Standalone Apps

Launching standalone apps lets Facebook put new features front and center with unlimited flexibility in design, but they start with zero installs. Standalone apps have to fight to prove their worth beyond the existing Facebook app in order to gain loyal users and word of mouth growth. Facebook recently tried this with the release of Paper, a stylized feed reading app. Facebook has said it’s pleased with initial results but hasn’t revealed any growth numbers. It could promote Paper in its main app, but that might come off as nagging users.

Companion Apps

Companion apps let Facebook unbundle core features from its main app so they’re quicker to access and feel mobile-first. Still, some users don’t want to have a whole folder full of Facebook apps, and Facebook may encounter resistance when forcing people to download them. It’s in the process of this with Messenger. In November, it began fast-switching users that tapped the Messages tab in its main Facebook apps to Messenger if they had it installed. Now, Facebook has announced it will strip Messages out of the main apps entirely and require users to download Messenger if they want to chat. Many complained. While Facebook can employ its massive smartphone app engagment to cross-promote other apps, it needs to be judicious so as not to feel spammy.

The success of Facebook in the upcoming “mobile-only” era will depend on correctly selecting which of these distribution strategies to go with for each launch. If it chooses wisely, Facebook could use size to turn new features into instant hits. If it chooses wrong, Facebook could build powerful new functionality that is never adopted or only done so begrudingly, and watch competitors steal its use cases.