Facebook's latest tweak to its interface gives brands a new way to be a part of a consumer's social life.
My friend Tracy came this close to giving up on Facebook.
A social person by nature, she had gathered a good number of friends on the service. She also connected with the people she worked with and others whom were just passing acquaintances. She hooked back up with people she knew in college and high school and even someone from third grade. Along the way, she also became a fan of (and later "liked") a series of brands that she had some connection to or affinity for. Facebook became just what the founders wanted it to be: the central hub of her social life.
But, then, slowly, it moved from a nice, orderly hub to a chaotic mess. Not a mess in the way that MySpace became a mess, with blinking backgrounds and odd color combinations. No, it became an information mess. People Tracy hadn't spoken to in years were now informing her of what they were having for lunch. Long lost and little cared about connections were giving updates on workouts they just finished, movies they were watching, and virtual fish that needed virtual feeding. Facebook was beginning to bend under the weight of its core value proposition and she was ready to just turn it off. Facebook would have been one of those things that she did for a while, a couple years back.
Of course, this happened to a lot of us. And marketers were starting to get uncomfortable. We had relied upon the social draw of Facebook to amass large audiences to show ads to. Even more importantly, we relied upon the social nature of the site to allow us to develop a new, deeper conversation with consumers. But if the experience on the site was starting to frustrate users, simply because there was too much, users would stop coming. The relationships that we had forged with consumers would fade away.
There was real reason to worry, in fact. In June of this year, Facebook saw a significant drop in traffic and it wasn't clear that the site was continuing to add users at the same pace that it had. Couple that with a serious attempt from Google to create a social network, and people began to openly ask whether the Facebook era was beginning to enter its twilight phase.
The Big Fix(es)
Tracy has, at least so far, decided not to abandon Facebook. The reason being that she got a chance to see and play with the newest tweak to the interface of the site. The good news is that not only does it make the site more useful for her, but it also shows the way that brands can be somewhat sure they will continue to be a part of a consumer's social life.
In particular, the big fix that Facebook introduced is the "ticker." ClickZ has called this feature a way that Facebook will be friendlier for brands, and it's easy to see why. The ticker is a box on the side of the interface that provides a scrolling list of everything that is happening inside your social network. Coupled with this is some smart technology that figures out which stories are "top" and puts those (and only those) inside the main news feed.
This is a great improvement to the Facebook experience in that it takes so many of those little actions and places them in a tidy box. The ability to interact with a story (i.e., see more, watch a video, or leave comments) is extremely elegant. Yes, this is a firehose of information from your friends, but it is the right kind of firehose. It is even interesting to sit and watch the updates scroll by, just to see what else may fly in for you.
A lot of the content from brands that consumers like will end up in here as well. Most likely, a consumer does not want to see daily information from a brand on Facebook. What would end up happening, then, is that content would be hidden from view, unless you clicked over to the "most recent" tab on the screen. Which is to say that a lot of the posts that brands were putting up were never getting seen.
The new ticker fixes this, since every story gets posted and scrolls by. I'm sure the great hope is that users will become addicted to this feed and keep it open all day long. I would assume we'll see this functionality broken out as a part of the mobile app as well. Of course, there has been a small furor from Facebook users complaining about the change. That will pass, I'm sure, as people begin to see that this is a great balance between the big stories that people want to see, pulled out of the rolling tide of updates.
The ticker, I suppose, is not exactly built for brands. There are other improvements that are more focused on providing brands with opportunities to market, connect, and engage with consumers. But, ultimately, if consumers - people like Tracy - start to feel that this platform is not for them, than any ad product innovation is pretty meaningless. With this improvement, I think Facebook has taken some great steps toward making sure that using its system is fun, rewarding, and not too cluttered.
Which is to say, Facebook bought itself a few more months before something else crops up.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
Hong Kong, May 5-6, 2015
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