A few weeks back, I wrote about the changes to the Facebook algorithm. It was a bit of a quiet storm at that point. The changes went into effect sometime around the end of the year and while a few stories were filed and some discussion popped, it really didn't feel like too much of a big deal. I wrote about it and I had this sense that maybe I wasn't making that big of a deal out of the change.
But let me correct that, today: This is a REALLY BIG FREAKING DEAL.
Facebook gets about 167 million unique visitors a month. That is about 20 New York Cities worth of people logging in and clicking Like and tagging photos and so on. It's also about eight times the circulation of the AARP's magazine (which has the largest circulation of any magazine in the United States). The world is coming to Facebook, that much is clear. And, therefore, it makes sense for advertisers to be there.
Facebook has always had an interesting relationship with brands. I don't necessarily believe the movies, but it is clear that the people who built Facebook wanted to build a great service first and foremost. Advertising did not interest them. Then, they allowed brands on and let us (essentially) fend for ourselves - creating pages and driving customers to them and letting us do what we wanted. And not really charging us.
Then they introduced a host of ad packages. This was inevitable, and I was totally for it. Advertising on Facebook was simple and straightforward. You could target really precisely and you could create ads with very little extra effort. Plus, you could advertise for your own page on Facebook. It was like you could advertise relationships rather than advertise products. It was cool.
But the problem was starting to bubble up. Consumers were starting to get a bit peeved at what their Newsfeed looked like. The fact was, brands were beginning to clog up their experience. I know this is just personal, but I heard from several friends that their Newsfeed was rapidly turning into a steady stream of updates from a bunch of brands that they were only a little interested in, suddenly acting like they wanted to know how their weekend was.
If You Are a Brand, You Need to Act Like a Brand
Here's the thing about the algorithm change. I said this before, but it is worth diving into. If you are a brand, you need to focus on content.
Let's imagine that Facebook is similar to any other media for a second. People turn on TV to watch shows and they buy magazines to read articles. The idea behind Facebook has always been that it was a place to connect and engage with your friends. That was the genius of Facebook: it was totally focused on your social network. It was not a place to display your interests (like a personal website) or share your thoughts (like a blog). It kept the interface clean(ish) and insisted that you use your own name.
That promise is what built that audience. If Facebook no longer becomes that kind of a place, it runs the risk of alienating its users or even driving them to other services. Facebook's moves have been seen by some as an attempt to generate revenue. I hear the argument that, now that Facebook is a publicly traded company, they need to satisfy shareholders who want a return on their investment. The way that their stock price dropped so sharply after it opened up only increased the suspicion that they were going to get serious about getting cash.
But I think that misses a far more important point. Yes, of course, Facebook needs to make money. Every company does. However, the best and longest-lasting companies make money by providing something truly valuable, not by trying to squeeze out a dollar from everywhere. Facebook is trying to preserve the heart of its service in the midst of what is still enormous, rapid growth.
By having people pay to do something, you do two things. First you only get people who really want to have that thing. The other is that you force people to consider what they want that thing for. If something is free, everyone does because...why not? It's free. It doesn't need to generate value and you don't really need to have a plan. Having people pay for something automatically makes people think strategically.
So if reaching people on Facebook is going to cost something, either because you need to create compelling content or because you need to buy an ad, it will get people starting to think about why they are doing it. And if marketers are more thoughtful about the way they are using Facebook, it will make the experience of engaging with brands on Facebook a whole lot better.
Strategic thinking in marketing is not just for the company doing the marketing. It is also for the consumer. People don't want to be bothered. People don't want spaces filled up with messages. They want to be communicated with and given something to engage with. Brands that simply put messages up because it's free are not serving anyone's needs.
Facebook's algorithm change is still pretty new and some brands are seeing shifts in engagement and others aren't. I don't know if this algorithm is going to change again. The move they made will, yes, make them more money, but the economic effect of the change will also cause marketers to think about who they want to talk to on Facebook and what they want them to do and why the conversation is valuable and worthwhile.
And that is a welcome change. If it makes Facebook more money, great. If it makes Facebook a more valuable platform, awesome.
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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.
March 19, 2014