Facebook’s Mobile Platform Race

As we previously discussed, in its fourth quarter earnings slides, Facebook for the first time provided color on mobile only user base growth since Q4 2011. Growth in mobile only monthly active users rose to 157 million in the fourth quarter. While the emphasis on mobile only users represents a shift in Facebook’s focus, it is important to remember that Facebook’s mobile only emphasis really started with its purchase of Instagram on April 12, 2012.

It is instructive to contrast the user base growth of both platforms. While Instagram has provided sporadic updates on its user base growth, and it is unclear whether Instagram has reported monthly active users or total registrations, the chart shows that Instagram has been growing quickly, notably without the benefit of Facebook’s network effect on Instagram’s user base growth until at least its acquisition by Facebook at month 18 in the chart.

Facebook (mobile only) and Instagram User Growth

Although Mark Zuckerberg stated on September 11, 2012 that Instagram was poised to surpass 100 million users, Instagram currently reports 90 million users. The disparity in user counts is likely the result of Instagram adopting a more accurate measure of active users. That is, Instagram almost certainly has 90 million active users, measured by activity in the past 30 days.1 By contrast, Facebook currently reports 157 million mobile only active users.

Instagram user growth since founding

The Facebook-Instagram user growth comparison isn’t exactly apples-to-apples. Foremost, Facebook’s mobile only user growth is symptomatic both of a shift in usage habits of its established user base, and a change in focus at Facebook, while Instagram’s growth is organic platform adoption. Facebook has also benefited by leveraging its platform, which is why mobile only user base growth is seen ramping faster than Instagram’s total user growth.

Facebook mobile only user growth

Facebook purchased Instagram in part because it was a clear threat to its established dominance as primarily a photo-sharing social network. Instagram was also the first truly mobile only social network, and prior to acquisition it demonstrated that Facebook had fallen behind in mobile. Since its acquisition, Facebook has placed renewed emphasis on its own mobile product offerings. The result has been growth in mobile and mobile only users.

It will be interesting to watch for a slowdown in Instagram’s user growth during or after FY 2013. Instagram is experiencing increased competition from various mobile only apps and even established networks like Twitter. Concurrently, Facebook continues to iterate on its mobile product offerings, which could entice users away from Instagram, which still operates a disparate user base from Facebook’s more than 1 billion user reach.

Notes

  1. On February 26, 2012 (3 days after this article was published) Kevin Systrom, Instagram’s co-founder, announced that the company had reached 100 million users. Systrom confirmed in a blog post on Instagram’s website that the 100 million users are active users, accessing the site on a monthly basis. The charts in this article have been updated to reflect the 100 million user milestone.