'Facebook lied to us" seems to be what many marketers are saying; in fact, this is specifically what one company, Eat24, said as it deleted its Facebook fan page. A media executive accused Facebook of "one of the most lucrative grifts of all time" for, supposedly, urging brands to "purchase" fan bases and then charging those same brands to reach their fans through paid media. "Marketers feel tricked," my Forrester friend Nate Elliott recently noted.
To be sure, the decreasing opportunities in earned media have put agencies and marketers in an uncomfortable spot. For years, agencies promoted and marketers purchased programs to build fan bases on Facebook, and once that was accomplished, those same agencies and marketers invested still more money to exploit those fans with games, contests, real-time marketing newsrooms and content strategies. There has been a great deal of investment in "earned media" strategies on Facebook that now show little promise with paywalls going up and organic reach plunging.
Who is to blame if those strategies were ill advised and the benefits of earned media were overstated? Everyone with a frustrated boss or disenchanted client raising questions about Facebook's dwindling organic opportunities are certainly quite clear: Blame Facebook!
I am far less convinced this is where the blame lies. If you disagree, let me ask you a few questions:
- Did you think social media changed basic consumer attitudes toward brands and marketing? Did you suppose that consumers who avoid marketing communications in every medium--skipping TV ads and abandoning commercial radio for subscription music services--where going to suddenly gravitate to brand content in social media?
- What did you anticipate would occur as more brands pumped more content into Facebook? As brands multiplied and marketing posts expanded, did you imagine consumers would push aside their family and friends in order to embrace ever more marketing content? Or did you anticipate that your content was going to be that much better and more engaging than everyone else's, not just within your industry but across every brand, celebrity, news source and friend that your fans liked?
- Who told you could reach most of your Facebook "fans" in the first place? When Facebook announced EdgeRank four years ago, did you understand what it meant to your organic reach? Did you recognize the significance of Facebook's announcement two years ago this week that Pages organically reach just 16% of their fans on average? Where did you get the impression that your brand could get free access to more of your fan base--was this expectation set by Facebook or by a vendor or agency?
- Did you believe Facebook would set aside its own financial goals in order to help your brand achieve its goals? Did you expect Facebook to frighten off users by turning their news feeds into a constant flow of marketing communications at the behest of marketers? Or was it your expectation that your brand could make free money on Facebook while Facebook itself set aside its own financial objectives?
- Who told you that harvesting large numbers of fans was the right strategy? When you were sold on a dubious program of giving away crap in Farmville or forcing disinterested people to "like" your brand in order to enter your sweepstakes, who was sitting across the marketing conference room table--was it Facebook execs or sales folks from an agency or vendor?
- Who urged you to invest in Facebook content strategies? Was it Facebook that recommended you launch real-time newsrooms to spam customers' social discussions about events such as the Super Bowl or Oscars? To whom did you cut checks for all that content your brand developed for Facebook? Did Facebook get paid to develop all those viral videos, infographics, pictures of kittens and posts that asked your fans to "like if you drink coffee or comment if you prefer tea"? (Thank heaven those desperate and useless bids for meaningless engagement will come to an end, now that Facebook is clamping down on such tactics.)
Perhaps someone can dig up a rare Facebook post or some old Facebook sales deck that demonstrates the social network misled marketers, but I doubt there is much damning evidence to be found. At worst, Facebook seems guilty of failing to discourage inflated marketer expectations. (Of course, it was in its best interest not to.) Conversely, it is easy to find thousands upon thousands of blog posts, tweets and Slideshare decks from agencies, consultants and vendors painting an unrealistic picture of the future of earned media on Facebook and other social platforms.
Heck, as recently as three months ago, marketing media and agency bloggers were tripping over each other to praise the ridiculous Esurance Super Bowl Twitter sweepstakes, congratulating the brand for useless fans and valueless tweets. (In the months since, the brand has lost half of its new fans and is getting less engagement than before the misguided promotion.) This sort of mentality--than any fan, any post, any engagement drives brand value--is precisely what led us to the current level of disappointment in Facebook. Even as agencies and marketers are coming to realize the reality of earned media on Facebook, they are repeating the same mistakes in other social platforms!
Today, social media marketers are waking up with a Facebook hangover. They binged, partied, drunk-dialed consumers, posted regrettable selfies and damaged relationships while under the influence of free marketing via earned media. In the harsh reality of the morning after, it is easy to blame the bartender, but Facebook wasn't the one doing keg stands with your brands' content for the last several years.
"It's Facebook's fault" may be a convenient and safe excuse, but taking responsibility is the first step to a cure. Blaming Facebook may get marketers or agencies off the hook today, but if they repeat the same mistakes in Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Snapchat and the like, they will only end up with same painful hangover.
Today's unpleasant realization about organic opportunities on Facebook is not just a problem but a golden opportunity to reconsider social media strategies across all platforms. Marketers tested and they learned--the only failure at this point is to expect different results from the same strategies on other platforms. As noted in my last post, I urge marketers to consider what it means if everything they understand about social media marketing is wrong.
Rather than assign blame, now is a good time to take a fresh look at what social media is doing to brands rather than what it can do for brands. That is the mindset that can lead to a new, different and successful course for your brand's future social media strategies.