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Time Spent on Social Media Is Plateauing: Here’s What the Data Says You Should Start Exploring Instead

When you talk about “social media users” in strategic planning meetings, you may imagine them as people continuously scrolling through an endless feed of content for hours at a time just waiting to come across the right message (presumably from you), so they can subscribe to a newsletter, visit your site, watch a video, or click a link.

Unfortunately for you (but fortunately for humanity), the time users spend on social media isn’t trending the way you might believe. A recent report from eMarketer shows that from 2014-2017, social media usage climbed by about 5 minutes per day per user each year. However, in 2018 the time the average person is spending on social media per day has grown only about 2 minutes and 53 seconds more per day.

You may believe that growth is growth. However, while social media usage per day has grown for some a select few (specifically, two) channels, it has decreased for others — most noticeably for the largest social channel of them all, Facebook. In fact, the time an average user spends on Facebook has decreased from 25 minutes per day in 2017 to 24 minutes in 2018. This may seem like an inconsequential drop, but it is all part of a strategic shift by Facebook to get people to spend less time on the site.

A recent report from @eMarketer shows the average time users spent on social media per day has grown 2 minutes and 53 seconds more per day, in 2018 over 2017. #contentmarketing Click To Tweet

Why Facebook wants you to spend less time on Facebook

Why Facebook wants users to spend less time on it

A number of reasons might contribute to the 4 percent decrease in time spent per person on Facebook from 2017 to 2018, but it is certain that one of the main contributing factors is the fact that Facebook itself wants people to spend less time on Facebook. It might seem counter-intuitive that any social platform would want for people to spend less time on it, but Facebook makes a case that this decrease in time spent on the site is exactly what it expected to see.

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke about why he hoped that Facebook would see a decrease in the amount of time people spend on the site. According to Zuckerberg, Facebook was entering a new era of emphasizing the quality of the time spent on the site rather than the quantity of time spent there.

“I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down,” Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page earlier this year. “But I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable. And if we do the right thing, I believe that will be good for our community and our business over the long term too.”

Two reasons why average time spent on social media isn't dropping more.

Two reasons why average time spent on social media isn’t dropping more

Because Facebook is the most influential global social channel, you might expect that as Facebook goes, so goes all of social media. Your assumption might be true if it weren’t for the two social media channels that are seeing an increase in time spent on the site in 2018: Instagram and Snapchat.

  1. Instagram: After seeing usage increase by three minutes in 2017, Instagram has seen much more modest growth of a 1-minute-per-day increase in 2018. A large reason for the slowdown in the year-to-year amount of time spent may be because of Facebook’s influence on Instagram, which it purchased for $1 billion in 2012. Like Facebook, Instagram introduced a tool in 2018 that lets users know just how long they are spending on the site. Researchers expect that amount of time U.S. adults spend on Instagram to rise two minutes in the next two years to reach 11 minutes per day.
  2. Snapchat: Snapchat appears to be following a similar trajectory as Instagram over the next two years. Users spend an average of 7 minutes per day on the app in 2018 and are expected to spend about 8 minutes per day on the app in 2019 as well as in 2020.

Social media plateaus are the norm

Despite the minimal growth from Snapchat and Instagram, these channels appear to be an anomaly in a tempered social media world. In addition to the decrease in the time spent on Facebook, the amount of time that users spend per day on second-tier social media networks is plateauing. Total average time spent per day on other social networks (e.g., Pinterest, LinkedIn, Twitter) is expected to stay at about 12 minutes per day year-over-year for the next two years.

Where should marketers be focusing their time instead?

Given that it may very well be possible that we no longer will see major year-over-year increases in time spent on social media sites, it may be time for marketers to take a sincere look at digital channels where more significant growth is happening and begin to slowly decrease the effort put into social media and instead further develop content plans for faster-growing channels.

The following two content development tactics may be most valuable for marketers to pay attention to now and in the near future.

Should marketers be focusing their time instead? Data still points to yes, in spite of Facebook's video-data scandal.

Digital video

This year, mobile device users are spending 38 minutes per day watching digital videos. This number is up from 31 minutes in 2016 and 34 minutes in 2017. This growth trend is expected to continue over the next couple of years, with daily mobile video consumption expected to reach 43 minutes per day in 2020. Though some of this video consumption happens on social media, much of the viewership also can be attributed to streaming services (such as Netflix or Hulu). More than half of U.S. adults now have access to subscription digital video.

Ann Bair, Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Officer at Nationwide touted the importance of continuing to develop video content in a recent “Think with Google” YouTube video.

“Video is something that is even more important than ever before,” Bair said. “It’s the way that customers want to interact with us. They spend more time on video and interact with us more deeply, so we work to make sure that we are capturing that information and then serving up messages to our customers in a relevant way.”

Streaming audio and podcasts are where it's at. Engagement is accelerating.

Streaming audio

Another one of the major opportunities for marketers to reach individuals is found in digital audio. U.S. adults are now spending 69 minutes per day engaging with digital audio. This represents a year-over-year 6 percent increase in time spent on digital audio per day. By 2020 this number is expected to expand to 74 minutes per day. An increase in subscription audio services is contributing to the time spent per adult on these channels. Thanks to improved local ad options on channels like Pandora and Spotify, marketers have new opportunities to reach audiences through digital channels.

Pandora boasts more than 2,000 unique audience segments to whom marketers can target ads. It also features a user base who spends an average of 20.7 hours per month with the music streaming site, which is more time per month than individuals spend on Facebook or on YouTube. In the case of Pandora, the opportunity to get granular with ad targeting may be an opportunity you can’t overlook.

Pandora’s Chief Marketing Officer Aimee Lapic spoke about the company’s desire and ability to reach users with super-targeted content.

“There’s nothing wrong with segment-driven marketing, but it’s so much more powerful when I can talk to you about who you are, what I know you like, and what I anticipate you’re going to like based on what you liked in the past,” Lapic said. “I mean the returns and the response is somewhere around 10 to 20 times higher than if I just sent you a generic ad.”

Chad Buleen

About Chad

Chad Buleen is an award-winning journalist, the manager of social messaging for a large international nonprofit, a digital media enthusiast and father of four. Follow him on Twitter .

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