Some recent research endeavors gave me an opportunity to look around for current demographics on various social media platforms. The campaigns that I have been working on do push the boundaries of the social media or messaging mechanisms that we use, one reason I enjoy working for a creative and innovative agency. The challenge for a user experience designer, however, is that there is often no precedent for some of the innovative things that we try or suggest. It is difficult to know what is really best for the user in these situations, and we often rule on the side of gut instinct. This is not necessarily a bad thing, I just wonder how to harness that experience to the pool of knowledge to draw on for projects moving forward.

Facebook has come up on two very different campaigns, so I thought it was natural to devote some time to understand the demographics of the social networking site. The first UK based and the demographics in question were of age, specifically users over the age of 35. The second was outside of the UK, the demographics focused on usage in three very different countries. In both campaigns SMS also came up, specifically around short-code usage, this may be a separate set of research, but I think given some of the numbers I have been able to locate, I could make a case not to rule out SMS as an option in favor of Facebook as a communications platform for interactive campaigns.

I was surprised to find little reference to general demographics on Facebook with any of the academic papers that I could locate so far. The demographics in this research, of course, were very specific to the research study in question. Most academic researchers studied Facebook in relation to college-aged students (roughly the 18-25 age group). This was not going to help me when looking at the over 35 set. Of course, many academic studies also only focus on one university in one location so knowing that I do not feel I can rely on those numbers to give me a clear picture of demographics across an entire country or region. What I did determine is that there is probably opportunity for more research with different age groups in this area. The challenge would be getting a large enough population and finding a way to reach users of a variety of ages.

It is not that these numbers do not exist at all; in fact, I did note that some academic papers were referencing one source in particular for datasets. The problem with this one source, however, was that the data was incomplete and it was difficult for me to justify the numbers that they came up with. The other worrying aspect is that this source was an infographic!1 I am not inherently against infographics, but when they are being cited in academic research and then themselves not listing complete datasets and references then I do become concerned about the validity of the data.

It turns out that it is not difficult for anybody to get these numbers (at least from Facebook anyway). It did take some digging, but I am actually able to get a very detailed set of real time demographics data from the Facebook Ad Platform.2 Since it is real time, I have started keeping some numbers in Excel so I can do a little charting of historical data. I am not really committed to doing this at regular intervals (there are some market research companies that are doing this anyway with the same data), but for my purposes this works really well for getting some useful demographics from Facebook, and very quickly.

The figures that I got are specific to projects that I am working on, but I was presented with a nice set of countries to try some comparisons on Facebook usage. The four countries I recorded statistics for included the United Kingdom, Mexico, Nigeria, and Indonesia. I was able to pull Facebook usage on each country and split it into my own set of age categories. I also researched total population for each country. As you would expect, the most users on the site are under the age of 35, but the United Kingdom does seem to have a significant proportion of over 35s on the site compared to the other three countries (37% for the United Kingdom and roughly 10-20% for the rest).

I did also look at gender. Across all countries, there are significantly more male users on Facebook, though it is about evenly split for both the UK and Mexico. I even did consider that some users would not specify a gender, but it turns out that this number is extremely insignificant (about 1% in every case). Most users do seem to include their gender on their profiles, which I have to admit did come a little as a shock to me.

My favorite set of stats that I gathered, though, was the graph I created on Facebook penetration, or a comparison of the entire population that is using Facebook for each country. When you compare the millions of people on Facebook to the entire population, you actually get a good sense of just how popular the social network is in these locations.

Chart of Facebook Penetration

Facebook Penetration: A comparison of Facebook usage and total population for United Kingdom, Mexico, Nigeria, and Indonesia

It is so easy to look at just the numbers and say, “well the UK, Mexico, and Indonesia have 30 to 40 million people on Facebook, and that’s a lot of people!” However, put total population on top of that you get a completely different story, especially with Indonesia where the total population is so high. Then with Nigeria, it looks like advertising efforts in Facebook might not be the best solution there (my assumption with Nigeria would be that SMS is a far more prevalent method of communication.) The Facebook numbers were estimated on August 5, 2011 on the Facebook Ad Platform, and the population figures were estimates from July 2011 from the CIA World Factbook.

What about Twitter, YouTube, and other networks? Unfortunately, this is not so easy. Many sources use the Google Ad Planner, but there’s some issues with this as a source, most specifically, Google does not have data sets for Nigeria, so I couldn’t do a consistent comparison for each country. I also noted significant differences in data when comparing Facebook statistics in Google Ad Planner to Facebook’s own statistics. The reason is that Google is measuring link traffic to and from those domains, not usage within. This does open up some opportunities to get data that are more useful from these other sites through further research, and certainly a good starting point to fill in gaps.

  1. : I am going to save my full thoughts on infographics for another blog post.
  2. : To get to the demographics tool, start to create an ad with any link. You do not need to submit the ad. ↩
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