Here is what Facebook hopes will occur: Users continue to adopt Facebook into their lives, giving advertisers more reasons to purchase new forms of social advertising on the platform. Users win with access to the most powerful, free communications tool in human history; advertisers win with access to consumers where they spend more online time than any other site; and Facebook wins by earning more marketing dollars they need to justify their post-IPO share price.
If the outcomes of Facebook's latest changes are less positive, it would not be the first time an organization suffered from unforeseen reactions. Digg, for example, famously altered its functionality and lost users after a "Quit Digg Day" revolt. I expect Facebook will do just fine as marketers and users adjust to the new fMC changes, but there are some potential unintended outcomes that could develop:
- FTC pushes for much more obvious disclosure of sponsored ads in users' newsfeeds: Allowing marketers to turn their posts into ads within the newsfeed is not new--Twitter is already doing the same thing with Promoted Tweets--but is the fact these are paid ads obvious enough to users? The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a longstanding standard that people must recognize ads as such and cannot be duped into thinking advertising is content. The danger was framed well (inadvertently) by Forbes when it said, "The more Facebook 'ads' look just like the posts people and brands are already making on Facebook, the less they are likely to be seen as intrusive." True, and the more likely they are to run afoul of regulators.
The Premium on Facebook ad for the Web
contains a small "sponsored" tag while the
mobile ad features no disclosure.
Search engines struggled with this same problem in the early days of the Web, when some search engines allowed brands to buy their way into the results or to purchase ads that were almost indistinguishable from organic results. A decade ago, Google recognized this was a problem and set itself apart, promising, "Every ad on Google is clearly marked as a 'Sponsored Link' and is set apart from the actual search results." The FTC also recognized the problem and issued a "landmark recommendation to the search engine industry that it should improve disclosure of paid content within search results." It would not surprise me, given the reach of Facebook, if the FTC jumps into this very same issue again.
- Users revolt and leave Facebook: Facebook is so deeply integrated into users' habits and into web sites that it is hard to imagine Facebook could face an exodus, although some folks seem to predict this with every change Facebook makes to the user interface. Back in 2009, the New York Times ran an article entitled "Facebook Exodus," noting "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Facebook, the online social grid, could not command loyalty forever." While the obituary was wildly premature, the article closes on a cautionary note as relevant today as three years ago, asking, "Is Facebook doomed to someday become an online ghost town, run by zombie users who never update their pages and packs of marketers picking at the corpses of social circles they once hoped to exploit?"
MySpace and Facebook took
divergent paths years ago.
- Users revolt and unfriend large brands: Of course, Facebook users do not need to abandon Facebook and their existing social graphs if they object to seeing ads in their newsfeed--all they need to do is unfriend the advertisers. When using Premium on Facebook advertising, only a brand's fans will see the sponsored story in their home page newsfeeds; someone not connected to the brand will see the story in the right-hand side of their homepage where, as we all know, it is unobtrusive and easy to ignore. The fewer brands you like, the fewer sponsored stories you will see in your newsfeed.
Of course, Facebook would argue--with great merit--that these sponsored ads are really just brand posts that might have organically appeared in fans' newsfeeds in the first place. It is likely Facebook users will not object to seeing sponsored posts from the brands they truly like, provided those posts are relevant and Facebook keeps the mix of brand-to-human posts lean. The onus is on the advertisers to make sure the posts they make and select are interesting to the audiences they target, or else brands could see fan counts shrinking for the first time in Facebook's comparatively brief history.
- Brands may not adopt Facebook's new ad media in large numbers: It seems unlikely, but it is possible that marketers are just not prepared for the dynamic new ad model Facebook has unveiled. This is not your father's advertising with long lead times and carefully crafted creative. Instead, brands will need to monitor the effectiveness of their organic content, strike when the iron is hot and create an ad out of a post that is demonstrating great engagement.
Agility is not exactly the strong suit of most large marketing organizations. Says Bryan Wiener, CEO of 360i, “The industry is not set up to support the new world order... Facebook is making it incredibly difficult for these companies.” He predicts Facebook's approach may require big disruptions in the way marketers and their agencies work.
- Brands may demand powerful ways to unfriend fans: Many brands accumulated "friends" with little to no relationship with the brand. They offered Farmville items or sweepstakes entries in return for new "likes," which seemed like a good idea when it boosted brands' fan counts. But now Facebook is increasing the importance of paid media relative to earned media, and that means that brands with more fans will pay more. If you are Starbucks and your fans are true fans, Reach Generator may be worth the investment, but if your brand has a million fans who cared more for the freebie they got than for the brand, you're about to find out how expensive a mistake you have made.
Augie does not like Gerber.
What should a brand do if it accumulated many disinterested fans? It is not clear since there are no tools for managing your fan base in meaningful ways. Facebook is not like email--you cannot delete fans who have failed to open or click on your posts, nor can you target your posts based on source codes. Gerber and brands like it that engaged in a race for inauthentic "likes" may soon demand Facebook offer tools to pare fan counts in order to increase their advertising effectiveness.
- More investment in owned communities: Some social media professionals have been questioning if owned communities have a role in a world dominated by Facebook. Why invest in your own Lithium or Salesforce.com community, they ask, if you can build a community on the platform already used by almost one billion people?
I have never bought this line of reasoning, because Facebook never really offered brands the opportunity to build true community. With the new timeline design reducing the prominence of fans' posts, it is an even weaker community-development platform today. Done right, Facebook and owned communities are not competitive but collaborative.
Facebook's changes could push more companies to consider the value of building their own communities because brands will see an increase in cost to communicate with customers on the Facebook platform. In a New York times piece, Ben Winkler, chief digital officer of OMD, said it nicely, “The Facebook platform is undeniably incredible, but we must acknowledge that our customer relationships there are not owned — they’re rented.” Facebook may have just made it evident how important it is for brands to own their fans, not merely rent them.
What do you think? Will Facebook's changes cause no stir among regulators and users? Will marketers adapt to a new way of real-time social advertising? Are there other reactions we might expect in the coming months? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.