Monday, March 5, 2012

Did Facebook Just Kill Earned Media?

Facebook says using Reach Generator will
increase the volume of engagement with
your brand (likes, comments and shares) by 2x
At last week’s Facebook Marketing Conference (fMC), the company announced new timeline features and ad programs, which are thoroughly explored in great summaries by TechCrunch and Attention. Marketers are atwitter (pun intended) over new opportunities for social media at scale, but the announcements made me wonder if Facebook was diminishing the power of earned media and elevating old-fashioned paid media.

Let me start with a simple question:

Which brand do you believe deserves to win in the social era: The one that earns the most attention through its products, services and brand, or the one with the biggest advertising budget?

Now, read what Attention has to say in its overview of Facebook's new timeline:

"Thus far, brands have invested in fans. And brands have invested in content to engage them. Now, by investing in Reach Generator and Premium on Facebook, brands have the ability to guarantee that fans see this content. While brands are paying for distribution, brands are receiving significantly more engagement. This will greatly increase a Page’s EdgeRank score, which will, in turn, grant a greater ROI as more of a brand Page’s content will be viewed over time."

Michael Lazerow, CEO of Buddy Media, said it even more succinctly on AdAge:

"While you're paying for distribution, you're getting significantly more engagement. This engagement is 'Facebook gold,' as I like to say. Your EdgeRank score will be juiced."

Wait a sec--brands that invested in fans and content now must invest in paid media? And paying for distribution will increase a brand's content's EdgeRank, Facebook's method for (authentically?) recognizing the content that fans most want to see in their newsfeeds? It sounds as if earned media has just taken a knee to the groin from old-fashioned Advertising 1.0.

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think Facebook has finally given to marketers the tools they need  to drive success on the Facebook platform--the combination of Open Graph, new action types, richer fan pages, Reach Generator and Premium for Facebook furnishes a powerful (if still complex) marketing suite. On the other hand, I also cannot help but think back to the tenants of social media as expressed in the Cluetrain Manifesto: "We are immune to advertising. Just forget it..." Not so quick there, Cluetrain! There's a new sheriff in town--and he looks a lot like the old sheriff in a new uniform.

Different observers have different opinions what this all means, but I believe one thing is certain--Facebook users will see less organic brand content in their newsfeed and be exposed to more paid brand content. No, that is not exactly what Facebook execs said on stage at fMC; instead, they launched Reach Generator which, according to Ad Age, "lets you pay money to guarantee that your Posts get to at least 75% of your fans each month" instead of the 16% Facebook says sees wall posts currently. Facebook is also launching Premium on Facebook, which allows brands to insert their posts into fans' newsfeeds (both in the browser and mobile versions), saving brands the hard work of earning their way into fans' attention.

Facebook guaranteeing impressions can only mean one of two things. The first is suggested by The New York Times, which says we will see a great deal more ads: "Facebook’s hundreds of millions of users could soon be faced with a lot more advertising — in their newsfeed, on their mobile devices and even when they log off." I'm betting on option number two, which is the less dangerous one for Facebook: The number of brand impressions will stay more or less steady, but paid impressions will push earned media out of the way.

We all recognize that people don't sign into Facebook  to see what brands are posting. A little bit of that goes a long way, and too many brand posts--sponsored or organic--could easily get people packing their bags and heading to Google+, Path or another social network with less advertising (for now). If Facebook wishes to increase paid impressions while avoiding a user revolt against greater brand presence, the answer is easy: Simply decrease the opportunity for brands to speak within fans' newsfeeds for free in order to make room for the brands that pay. (Now, c'mon, you didn't think Facebook existed to allow companies to make money by collecting customers and communicating in powerful new ways for free, did you?)

Maybe this isn't an either-or situation but instead marks a new synergy between paid and earned media; after all, these new Facebook ads all begin their lives as posts, not traditionally-designed ads. Or maybe Facebook just eviscerated the difference between earned, owned and paid media (for better or worse). Michael Lazerow thinks so: "The lines between what marketers now refer to as paid, owned and earned media are now officially gone. Goodbye. Gone."

Still, if the way a brand gets noticed in social media increasingly depends on its checkbook, this seems to mark a new phase in the evolution of social media. Are we seeing the passing of the era of earned media so soon? Is Facebook now like television, putting challenger brands and small brands with limited budgets at a disadvantage against the brands that can invest liberally to get their messages distributed? And can we say that earned media is, in fact, earned if most people see it only because it is paid?

As I watch for Facebook's bold changes to be deployed more widely, I hope that earned media does not become locked behind a paywall. Mike Hoefflinger, Director of Global Business Marketing of Facebook, said Facebook is bringing back the relationship between customers and brands to the “good old days” when the guy behind the pharmacy counter knew your name. He then added that ”Premium offers on Facebook are the best way to get your stories in front of more people, more often…This is your opportunity to express your identity and tell your stories.”

Funny, but I remember the shop owner earning the relationship with me, not buying it.

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