We saw as early as April and May of 2011 that Facebook itself had slowed its growth, but where did that leave brand pages?

The number of organizations creating fan pages hasn’t abated. And as 2010 ended, the average page in the top 50 branded Facebook fan pages had grown over the year by 377.3%. However, in 2011 the average page on that ranking grew only 75%. The trend could have profound implications on social media marketers working to grow — and leverage — fan bases.

Facebook Growth Has Slowed

EMarketer reports that 82% of CMOs plan to increase their social media efforts over the next 3 years. It’s a fair assumption that many of them will be looking to grow their social channel presence, often leading with Facebook.

But if this chart is any indication, growing that fan base may be more difficult than it used to be, and it seems to have gotten significantly worse around the same time that Facebook growth began to slow.

As you can see, growth in the second half of 2010 reached routinely double digits, and often broke 20% in a single month. As we rolled into the first half of 2011, however, it was not uncommon to see growth rates of 6, 7 and 8% per month. But in the last six months, we’re seeing growth rates as low as 2%, and December 2011 showed an average growth under 2% for the first time ever.

Not Just Percentages

Percentage growth is easy to attain on small numbers, but correspondingly harder to attain on a large number. So is this decrease in fan growth simply a math quirk?

To double check that, I analyzed the number of fans added by the top 50 branded pages each month over the same period of time last year versus this year. The results are compelling.

  • July – Dec. 2010: Top 50 pages added an average of 47,375,504 fans per month
  • July – Dec. 2011: Top 50 pages added an average of 12,087,944 fans per month

This shows that these pages are growing at only 25% the rate, in real numbers, that they were growing a year ago. Charting monthly growth in real terms leads to a chart with roughly the same configuration as the percentage growth.

What About Page Age?

It’s a valid question to wonder if it’s something about these specific pages, rather than Facebook fan pages in general. While the analysis includes 50 pages each month for two years, it’s still a limited data set and, by definition, is the largest brand pages in the world. Since Facebook doesn’t publish the date a page is created, I can’t factor in the age of the page and look for a correlation there.

What I did instead was look at the 15 largest pages in our study and the 15 “smallest” pages in our study to see if the line was significantly different. As you can see from the chart, the smaller pages are doing slightly better than the larger in terms of percentage growth (as would be expected), but the trendline is the same.

It is possible that these giant pages have stopped fan acquisition programs, which would make sense, but it’s unlikely that they would have all stopped them in June, so there seems to be something larger happening here. I also considered if the introduction of the Facebook Ticker was to blame, but that rolled out Sept. 21, and the data shows a slight uptick in October and November, so that doesn’t appear to be the issue.

What About Pages Not in the Top 50?

To answer this question, I analyzed several fan pages belonging to Ignite Social Media clients, and looked at their month-by-month growth over the last year. For each month, we noted whether a media buy was going to support that page and/or whether there was a social promotion (such as a contest) planned. The months in which neither of those was happening, we could determine “organic” growth rates. Without sharing too much detail, I can say that we saw similar trends to what I found above: In the second half of the year, organic growth was roughly half what it had been in the first half of the year.

This is not to say that you can’t see phenomenal growth in fan counts from promotions, even those with no media spend. We still see that all the time, with clients doubling and tripling their fan counts using some clever efforts. But I’m struck by the relatively pronounced decline in fan growth that we’re otherwise seeing.

We Need More Data

While I looked for supporting data online, I couldn’t find any similar analysis, so at this point, I turn to you. What are you seeing? Are you noticing that you have to work harder to add new fans, or is it just as easy as it was a year ago? How have your pages performed over the last 12-18 months, when you’re not doing concerted fan acquisition programs? Have changes to Facebook’s structure impacted your organic growth rate? Positively or negatively? Please let us know in the comments.



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