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Is This the Way to Solve Facebook Inc.'s "Engagement Problem?"

By Andrew Tonner - May 1, 2016 at 7:11PM

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With other social media platforms like Snapchat thriving, Facebook wants to find a way to bring users' attention back to its own platform. Here's why its new product idea won't work.

Image source: Facebook.

Between its own social media platform, massive messaging platforms, and hugely popular photo-driven network Instagram, Facebook (META -0.76%) arguably dominates our digital lives more than any tech company today.

However, some cracks are beginning to appear in the company's social media empire, a fact Facebook and its investors cannot ignore. Thankfully, according to one recent source, Facebook is fast at work developing a new product it hopes will remedy its engagement troubles.

An engagement problem at Facebook?
Over the past year, evidence suggests Facebook users have become a more passive bunch, a trend the social media giant wants to reverse.

According to a report from GlobalWebIndex cited by The Wall Street Journal, sharing on the social media platform declined roughly 25% between Q1 2016 and the year prior. Specifically, the percentage of users posting profile status updates at least once a month declined from 44% last year to 33% this year, and the number of users sharing photos fell from 46% to 37%. It isn't immediately clear what lies behind this trend. However, that hasn't stopped Facebook from developing a potential solution.

According to reports, Facebook has quietly begun developing a photo-sharing app. Mimicking Facebook's leading challenger Snapchat, the new app will reportedly open with the camera open and at the ready. The app will also allow for easy recording and sharing of live video onto, presumably, Facebook. Really, this just sounds like a version of Snapchat without vanishing images. And who said creativity is dead? 

Image source: Facebook.

Importantly, people familiar with the matter were quick to point out that the project remains in its preliminary stages. Depending on testing feedback, Facebook could well kill the project. That may prove just as well, because history suggests the odds of success for Facebook's reengagement project aren't necessarily the best. In fact, it could actually do more harm than good.

If you build it, will they come?
This isn't the first time Facebook has tried to create a photo-first app similar to one of its key competitors, and it isn't immediately clear why Facebook's latest efforts would stand a better chance of succeeding.

Though few remember it, Facebook created a photo-sharing app creatively named Camera in 2012, right around the same time it acquired Instagram. Facebook quietly shuttered the Facebook Camera app in 2014, though Instagram's overwhelming success virtually assured the product was dead on arrival. Then in 2014, Facebook launched an app called Slingshot, which was a literal knock-off of Snapchat, vanishing videos and all. Like the Facebook Camera app before it, Slingshot died a quiet death, lasting about 18 months after its debut. The predictable failures of both of Facebook's knockoff apps suggest its latest app will face a similar fate.

The problem with Facebook's efforts here is that they're driven by business considerations, not product invention, at least as far as I see it. By creating what is essentially a copy of a product that already exists, Facebook didn't do anything interesting or new. It simply mimicked the playbook of an already-scaled competitor and hoped users wouldn't know the difference. Unfortunately, history suggests they will. As such, Facebook hoping to launch a slight adaptation of Snapchat to serve its own business interests, namely user engagement, won't resound with users.

Interestingly, word of declining usage on Facebook raises another serious red flag for the company: big-picture staying power. There's always been some question as to whether users will abandon Facebook once a better alternative appears. However, because of Facebook's highly effective tactic of simply buying up any would-be competitors, there isn't a lot of data available to further the discussion.

What is clear, though, is that Snapchat remains incredibly popular among younger age groups. What's more, it continues to grow like a weed, according to reports, and its potentially deleterious effect on Facebook's user growth and engagement certainly isn't well understood at present. This is all very preliminary, but it's certainly evidence that Facebook is feeling the pressure from its vanishing video rival.

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