There has been a lot of public hand-wringing lately about the new Facebook policies that require marketers to pay for marketing messages. Brands that spent a lot of time, effort, and advertising dollars in the last few years building up their fan communities are upset with new restrictions on the promotions language and messaging allowed in News Feed posts. If posts look like an ad, smell like an ad, or quack like an ad, marketers will have to pay to get them circulated within their News Feed. This coincides with the release of a new Forrester study questioning the effectiveness of social channels, Facebook and Twitter in particular, for brand goals. Is it the end of social marketing dominance online? Hardly.
Disconcerted brands and agencies seem to think that Facebook owes them uninterrupted, unfettered access to Facebook users. But Facebook, like any public company, is chiefly beholden to its shareholders that demand growth. Social businesses balance a hybrid of audiences, growing paying customers and non-paying users at the same time only if they can simultaneously meet the needs of both audiences and do so better than the other options in the marketplace. Facebook has customers (brands and agencies who buy ads) and users (consumers who participate in their platform and draw ad dollars but don’t pay anything). Ultimately, the two groups have different interests that are hard to reconcile. While users may gain some benefit from the brands that provide content, information, and experiences to them for free; the main benefit of social communities for users does not rely on brand participation. The same is not true for the reverse. Marketers use social communities expressly to reach consumers and would find no value in social without the ability to reach highly targeted users reliably and consistently at scale.
Facebook, at least in its public policies, prioritizes the needs and experience of its users. It’s the long play and it’s hard to find fault with that decision even though it limits some of the opportunities that marketers have enjoyed on their platform to date. In making decisions in the best interest of users, Facebook protects and grows the user base, strengthens connections among users, and ultimately provides for more commercial opportunities. It balances the seemingly opposing sets of needs by putting a stake in the ground for users. As long as Facebook continues to provide a viable and efficient way to monetize a good user experience then everyone (shareholders, advertisers and users) can continue to enjoy the ride. Consumers for free. Marketers for the price of a ticket.
Enter Forrester and its study claiming that brands are wasting their money on Facebook and Twitter. Forrester makes a convincing, data-driven case to demonstrate the reductions in organic consumer reach that have been well documented and deeply felt by marketers for some time. No news there for anyone in the industry or paying attention. The shift to pay-to-play is real, it is not reversing, and it is up to marketers and the agencies that support them to make the appropriate adjustments in how they use or don’t use social and other digital channels to support their key business objectives with their given resources. Sure, if we doggedly keep doing things the same way when the rules and results change then we can easily waste a lot of money. We can also waste a lot of money if we use the same social playbook or expect one channel or placement to meet all our various needs for awareness, conversion, or other goals. The set of choices will expand and contract as social businesses roll out new ad products and policies and as competitive channels, platforms, and ad opportunities emerge and become viable. Strong organizations will continually assess their options and adjust their approach to social content, communications, and distribution in order to stay relevant and get in front of their audiences. They have to be prepared to pay for social access – just like they would at any other point of digital distribution, and that should prompt changes in their strategies and tactics.
Facebook will continue to evolve its business to meet the needs of consumers online and has proven itself adept at doing so to the tune of billions of users and dollars. You don’t want Facebook to stop evolving because the nanosecond that it chooses to stand still, it stops being as relevant to users and as valuable to businesses. The same advice would be well heeded by marketers. Like other areas of digital marketing, success in social marketing favors the nimble, not the outraged.
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