This may be something of an unpopular opinion, but I honestly don’t understand why everyone’s up in arms over Facebook’s decision to be what it always has been and always will be – an operation to make money.
Since late last year, I’ve been amused to watch the gradual rise in hysteria as community managers and various other marketing types noticed that Facebook was getting serious about making money from brands. They’re doing this by essentially forcing brand pages to buy the ability to have updates reach users.
The hysteria, at least for me, reached a crescendo with Eat24’s, now viral, breakup letter to Facebook. If you missed it, in a masterpiece of theatrics with GIFS and memes, this company made its exit from Facebook while essentially branding it a liar, cheat, cad, and downright ungentlemanly. It was a screed deserving of Scarlett O’Hara herself.
Being a firm fan of over-the-top theatrical turns, I have to give Eat24 a standing ovation for sheer entertainment value alone (Though no “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, Facebook’s response would not have shamed Rhett Butler).
But beyond Eat24’s masterpiece, what really is the issue here?
For some reason this debate is being cast as one between Facebook and brands. I don’t see it that way. While brand pages are at stake here, I see it as a fight between Facebook and marketers – the primary controllers of these pages.
The primary role of a marketer is to connect a brand with its audience. Now marketers are feeling betrayed, cheated and hurt by Facebook deciding that it’s no longer interested in giving them free access to that audience.
And brands should be concerned about this because, why again?
Let’s — if at all possible — try to look at what’s going on here in a calm and rational way.
For the past decade in various guises and forms, Facebook has been giving out free advertising. An entire industry of specialists, strategists, gurus and managers with carefully researched strategies has cropped up, selling plans to brands for how to engage with customers on this “exciting and dynamic new medium”.
As players in the marketing industry we have been very happy to show how much better your brand will do when you use some of your marketing spend for social media. Entire data centres and rainforests worth of reports have been put together and printed so we could document just how much greater the ROI from social media marketing is. We’ve told brands that social media is no longer the next big thing, but the thing.
And we’ve been right. The returns brands have seen in terms of recognition, customer relationships, and actual sales, have backed up what so many have been preaching for so long.
Together with other digital marketing efforts, year-on-year, greater shares of marketing budgets have been taken away from traditional marketing efforts to be shared with social and other digital channels.
If everything’s going so well, why is Facebook suddenly changing the game?
The General Motors case
In 2012, General Motors very loudly announced that though it would be keeping its Facebook brand pages active, it would no longer be purchasing advertising from the company. Though that was a decision which only lasted a year, one can’t help but wonder if Facebook loses any sleep over how many other GMs there might be out there. Brands are paying this army of specialists and strategists for all this social media marketing ROI, whilst never having paid a cent directly to Facebook.
Sure the US$1.5-billion profit Facebook made in 2013 is nothing to be scoffed at. But when you consider that, according to analysts, this $1.5-billion was made largely off the back of a 76% increase in advertising revenue in Q4, why wouldn’t Facebook want to force those other circa-2012 GMs out of hiding and onto the income statement? I’m pretty certain they can see how many of them there are.
Is Facebook a legitimate media channel
While the General Motors story may be interesting, it is admittedly largely speculative. What’s really compelling in this casting of Facebook as a betrayer, however, is the seemingly sudden change in attitude to how marketers are seeing Facebook.
In the wake of legitimate and illegitimate privacy concerns, today’s average Facebook user has made the decision that ceding their privacy and data (at least in part) to Facebook is a rational choice for them.
Boiled down to basics, we give Facebook our data in return for Facebook giving us the platform they’ve built. Though not traditional, it’s an economic transaction nonetheless. If marketers say brands can make fantastic returns on Facebook, why should brands not have to make their contribution in this economy?
Do the same marketers who claim betrayal by Facebook expect print, radio, or broadcast media to give them free media?
If we’ve spent the last decade arguing that social networks are more than cat GIFs and memes, and a proper media channel that brands can use to reach consumers, why are we shocked when Facebook acts like a media company?
Is Facebook the boyfriend who duped us, or merely another media company? I can’t see it going both ways.
Ultimately, I see this move by Facebook no differently to it buying Whatsapp or Oculus.The social network is no longer the happy-go-lucky wunderkind company developed in a Harvard dorm room. It may be a social network, but Facebook is also a mega media company. It’s getting serious about that, and so the free rides are coming to an end.
Image: Morgan via Flickr.