Column: It’s time to re-evaluate Facebook

After a whirlwind romance, are marketers and Facebook now just going through the motions? I want to make one thing clear at the outset – I’m very bullish on Facebook as a platform. This column is in no way an attempt to pile on and join the din of Facebook skeptics who have emerged in […]

After a whirlwind romance, are marketers and Facebook now just going through the motions?

I want to make one thing clear at the outset – I’m very bullish on Facebook as a platform. This column is in no way an attempt to pile on and join the din of Facebook skeptics who have emerged in the wake of Facebook’s public offering like Monday morning quarterbacks to predict the platform’s downfall.

In the coming months and years Facebook has a number of serious challenges it will need to overcome – primarily mobile and increasing revenue – but they’ve got a brilliant team and almost a billion active users, I’m confident they’ll figure something out.

As a marketing channel, however, I’m more skeptical. Not only is Facebook certainly not the silver bullet many of Facebook’s staunchest advocates once hailed it as, but for many brands it doesn’t make sense at all. The main counterargument I hear to this is that tons of people spend tons of time on Facebook so we need to be there. Well, tons of people also spend tons of time watching Two and Half Men, but that doesn’t mean every brand needs a primetime TV buy.

In recent years Facebook has established itself as an integral pillar in most marketing plans and I think it’s time we stop and think about what it’s doing there. Here are couple reasons why I think marketers need to re-evaluate the role Facebook plays in their marketing mix…

It Can Be Creatively Limiting
For the past six months, Facebook has been consistently telling marketers that success on the platform is dependent on “many lightweight interactions over time.” In other words, Facebook posts should be daily, less than 250 characters, include a picture and preferably have a question mark at the end of it.

Seriously? After all the investments you’ve made to be here, that’s the only type of creative you can produce. It’s a pretty tight creative box. Now, I’ll concede that, often, tight creative parameters result in razor sharp creative but not if you have to post something every day – which you do if you want to get into the Facebook news feed.

It’s Borrowed Media
Most brands consider their Facebook Page an ‘owned property,’ but technically it’s not owned at all. It’s borrowed. When a brand creates a Page on Facebook they are essentially building a house on someone else’s property. This can result in a lot of risk and disruption. Building a house on someone else’s property means that a) the house and everything in it doesn’t necessarily belong to you, b) you could show up tomorrow and discover the house has been totally renovated, and c) you could show up in two years and find the house and property are gone altogether. Ask any developer or project manager about building apps on Facebook and their facial expression will tell the tale of the volatile and ever-changing foundation your house is sitting on.

It (Traditionally) Hasn’t Much Cared About Marketers
Facebook built its empire on putting user experience first, and nothing ruins a user’s experience like a bunch of ads. The fact is that, traditionally, Facebook’s focus had been on making a great platform, not on making a lot of money. On numerous occasions I’ve heard marketers and brand managers begrudge Facebook for their unwillingness to acquiesce to their desires. The irony is that there is a very real risk that if Facebook begins to cater to marketers, the platform will cease to be a place where people want to spend their time. For Facebook to maintain its user base, it needs to be cool. And most ads aren’t cool.

It’s Expensive and Resource Draining
When Facebook first emerged on the scene, a lot of the buzz was around the fact that it was “free” and “easy.” As we all now know, neither of those claims is remotely true. Whether a brand has 10 or 10 million fans, there are substantial price-of-entry investments required just to be there. Content is the fuel that runs the Facebook engine – and that engine needs to be fueled daily. This type of commitment requires significant investments both in budget and resources. Someone needs to brief the content, write the content, approve the content, post the content, monitor the content, measure the content, etc.

On top of that, if you want anyone to see any of that content, you better make sure you’ve got paid media support. And that’s where the real money comes into play. Between content ideation, community management, analytics, approvals, media, and production, it’s staggering how much time and money goes into sustaining a Facebook Page.

It Exists for People to Connect with Friends
Unlike Twitter, which is an information network, Facebook is a social network. People go there primarily to connect with friends. Sure there are lots of people who follow brand pages, but that’s not why they signed up for Facebook.

So, what now? Should we all abandon Facebook just as quickly as we initially embraced it? Not necessarily. I believe that some brands are seeing a worthwhile return on the investments they’re making. That said, the brands that are doing well seem to share one or more of the following three characteristics.

First, they are big brands. The cost of entry on Facebook is such that a brand will only start seeing a worthwhile return once it hits a certain size where the reach and earned media outweigh the infrastructure costs.

Second, it really helps if you’re an aspirational brand. People are a lot more inclined to “like” your Page and share your content if you’re already a cool brand that people want to associate themselves with – Converse and Red Bull, both amongst the top brands on Facebook, come to mind.

Third, they have a brand purpose. To sustain a year-round content calendar you need a narrative that extends beyond your product benefits. You need a brand that stands for something and has an interesting story to tell. Secret deodorant is a great example of a brand that has created a compelling narrative through their Mean Stinks initiative.

It will be interesting to see how Facebook continues to evolve post-IPO. My hope is that they will find a way to grow and generate revenue without compromising their user experience.

In the meantime, I think there’s a need for marketers to re-evaluate Facebook’s role in the marketing mix. Right now it feels a bit like a relationship we rushed into and now we’re just going through the motions. It might be time to stop and think about what we’re getting out of this thing.

Thomas Kenny is a strategic planner at Leo Burnett Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @thomaskenny

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