Facebook’s underlying tension has always been that users are its product and marketers are its customers. Until recently, for brands, Facebook was a cheap and easy way to access relevant eyeballs. But these days of milk and honey are over now and brands are getting ornery.
Facebook first began to make this switch in 2012. In a then unpopular move, it limited the free (or ‘organic’ in advertising parlance) reach of page posts to 16 percent of total audience. In a recent Social@Ogilvy whitepaper, “Facebook Zero: Considering Life After the Demise of Organic Reach,” Marshall Manson spells out how it has slowly closed off this free access since then. Between October of last year and February, it reduced the average free/organic reach of each post on a brand page from 12 percent to six percent. At the same time, the average organic reach of posts for brands with over 500,000 followers sunk to just two percent.
Some people called it a grift. Some accused Facebook of openly failing brands. But as Manson, who directs the Social@Ogilvy division, explains to me, what we’re seeing is the logical conclusion of Facebook’s evolution as a business and one that it has been signaling openly for a year and a half.
“You have to be a bit grown up about it,” Manson says. “Facebook has done exactly what Zuckerberg promised, continuing to iterate the platform and the model for marketers.”
Facebook began communicating with brands by encouraging marketers to build communities and engage at scale, but as more people came onto the platform users began to get overloaded by brand messages. Manson says that while it is only his hunch, he expects that Facebook sets out a branded content “hole” in a user’s newsfeed, that more and more material is now trying to fit through.
“From the Facebook point of view, they’re trying to give users the best experience — and more power to them,” Manson says.
To Manson, the elephant in the room is that when Facebook became a public company it took on the legal responsibility to its shareholders to extract the most amount of profit from the platform. In doing so, it has exposed a flaw in the strategies of many marketers as well as bringing to light the central tension of Facebook itself as a money-minting social media service.
The constant shifting of goalposts of how Facebook wants marketers to behave is inherently frustrating, but marketers themselves are not blameless and seem to forget they don’t own the platform. “Too many marketers got in the habit of thinking ‘my social media strategy equals Facebook,’” Manson says. “The thing we have got to get back to is being platform neutral. Facebook is a valuable and viable platform to consider, but not the only platform.”
“But also the great tightrope walking exercise for Facebook from here on in is how to balance those two competing interests: how it wants brands to behave against its interest in making the platform better.”
As Manson outlines in his whitepaper, Facebook’s brand offerings have always awkwardly straddled different boundaries between paid, owned and earned content: brands pay for some things, they can send a post viral at no cost and they feel like the space is theirs, even when Facebook has shown time and again that it can and will play God.
Manson says that even if organic reach on Facebook doesn’t get to exactly zero, he sees it approaching nearly zero within a year. If marketers are sensible, they’ll use the remaining months well. “We need to use the organic reach we have and use it well. We need to make the most of the content we’re producing and use it to make sure the things we’re investing in have worth to our audience,” he says.
The smattering of brand dissent – what amounts to a couple of handfuls of companies amongst tens of millions – has prompted another round of ‘Facebook will die’ talk. “A lot of people in our space who think about this a lot, really want that to be the next big story,” Manson says.
In the short term, this should boost Facebook’s coffers. “Brands have invested in these communities,” Manson says. “Using paid posts to drive earned media or viral content, that value still holds.”
In the distant future, who knows. Manson says a service like WeChat in China resembles the sort of thing Facebook would be now if it was invented in the mobile era. Facebook isn’t peerless and will continue to have rivals. But, doomsday prophecies of platform abandonment are still hung up on the death of MySpace, he thinks. Twitter got people curious, but the people who set up there, most did so alongside Facebook, not instead of.
Brands – and probably people, too – got taken in by the lack of a price tag and forgot about what Facebook was. For brands, Facebook started out masquerading as a platform, but it was always headed towards becoming a paid service. This is how freemium works as business model, just on a slightly altered and grander scale. You lower the barriers, you bring someone in and when you’ve made yourself indispensable, you slowly up the price to stay. It’s really not that shocking.