Facebook Prods Users to Share a Bit More

Facebook Prods Users to Share a Bit More

Amount of new content posted has slipped, leading social network to try to prompt conversation

By DEEPA SEETHARAMAN Nov. 2, 2015 10:18 p.m. ET

Surveys show users post less often on the social network, which relies on users for an overwhelming majority of its content. In the third quarter, market researcher GlobalWebIndex said 34% of Facebook users updated their status, and 37% shared their own photos, down from 50% and 59%, respectively, in the same period a year earlier.

Facebook users still visit the network often. Some 65% of Facebook’s 1.49 billion monthly users visited the site daily as of June. But these days, they are more likely to lurk or “like” and less likely to post a note or a picture.

That isn’t a problem today for Facebook, which makes money by showing ads to users. The company is expected to report a 36% jump in revenue when it reports third-quarter financial results Wednesday.

But it could be a problem down the road. In a 2009 paper, Facebook researchers said it was “vital” for social networks to encourage a broad range of users to contribute content.

If fewer users post, “Facebook can potentially seem quite dry or quite boring,” said Jason Mander, head of trends at GlobalWebIndex.

So Facebook is fighting back with new features. Since May, the social network has placed prompts related to ongoing events at the top of some users’ news feeds, aiming to spur conversations. The prompts are partly based on a user’s likes and location, according to Facebook and companies working with Facebook.

On May 25, for example, Facebook reminded users that it was Memorial Day, displaying an image of an American flag above its standard prompt, “What’s on your mind?” On Sept 27, it displayed an image of a crescent moon as a prompt about the supermoon lunar eclipse. In October, it worked with AMC Network Entertainment LLC to remind fans of “The Walking Dead” about the show’s season premiere.

A Facebook spokesman said the company is testing “timely reminders about things people might want to post about.” So far, the response rates have been “excellent,” the spokesman said, declining to provide specifics.

“People continue to share a ton on Facebook and the overall level of sharing has remained not only strong, but similar to levels in prior years,” the spokesman said.

Vanessa Clark said she visits Facebook daily, but doesn’t post as frequently as she did a few years ago. The 29-year-old student and home health-care provider said she used to write about her daily stresses, but now holds back.

“I don’t want to post anything negative anymore,” she said.

On Sept. 28, Ms. Clark saw a prompt for a football game between her favorite team, the Green Bay Packers, and the Kansas City Chiefs. She was taken aback and didn’t post.

There is surprisingly little data about how often users post on Facebook. Analysts define “engagement” as the share of monthly Facebook users who check the network daily, but that doesn’t reflect what users do on the site.

The company offered some details in its early days, but stopped after its 2012 initial public offering. In August 2011, for example, Facebook said the average user created 90 pieces of content a month, including news stories and photo albums. It has never updated the figure.

Last week, Facebook said that in 2014, users shared 50 billion pieces of content from other apps and websites. That works out to roughly three pieces of content a month per user. Facebook declined to say how much content was shared on Facebook overall.

GlobalWebIndex compiles its data from quarterly surveys of roughly 50,000 Internet users in 34 markets world-wide, including nearly 40,000 Facebook users. It asks users whether they’ve engaged in 24 activities on the social network over the past month, such as “liking” posts or updating their status. Users who log in without posting, commenting or liking are considered “passive.”

Mr. Mander said Facebook’s efforts may be gaining traction. In the third quarter, 50% of those polled by GlobalWebIndex said they were active or contributed to Facebook, up from 42% in the first quarter.

Older surveys from Pew Research Center also show a trend toward passivity. In 2010, about 14% of U.S. Facebook users polled by Pew said they updated their status at least once a day and 61% said they did this at least every few weeks. By 2013, only 10% said they updated their status daily and 47% at least every few weeks. The same surveys found more Facebook users say they comment on others’ status updates, photos or links. Pew hasn’t repeated the survey since.

Facebook has introduced other features to encourage sharing, including new emojis that give users a wider range of expressions beyond “like.” In March, Facebook launched “On This Day,” a feature that lets users relive and share past posts.

“They’re trying to spur conversation around what’s happening,” said Carmen Sutter, a product manager for the social-media analytics unit of Adobe Systems Inc. Ms. Sutter said she sees prompts every time her college football team, Penn State University, plays.

Marco Fiori, 27, a public-relations account director in London, visits Facebook several times a day, but only posts about once a week. He said opening Facebook’s mobile app is “more of a reflex than a conscious decision.”

In August, Facebook urged him and others to “join the conversation about the tube strike” in London. Mr. Fiori, who has been on Facebook for almost a decade, said it was the first time he had seen such a prompt from the social network.

“Honestly, it didn’t work,” he said. “The topic wasn’t really one I’d share thoughts about.”

He did, however, post about the tube strike on Twitter.


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