It Was a Blip
Imagine a van driving into your neighbourhood, with the driver offering free ice cream. Since it doesn’t look like an ice cream van, few are willing to trust the driver. You, however, accept the offer and are pleasantly surprised.
He returns the next day. Given your positive experience, you tell some friends to give it a try. They too like the ice cream. The following day, they bring some of their friends. The ice cream is good, and it’s still free. More people show up every day. After a while, you get so used to free ice cream, you can’t believe people elsewhere pay for it.
Now, let’s imagine that ice cream is advertising—and the van driver is Facebook. See where I’m going with this?
There was a short blip, sometime in the late ’00s, when Facebook effectively gave away advertising. That was a smart move. In freely handing out so much exposure, they built a large base of reliant companies—most of whose people decried advertising as dead. Why pay for advertising, when they could reach and engage an audience—for free—by using Facebook?
At some point, though, the new provider wants to get paid. Initially, this comes as a shock—because paying for something you used to get for free seems like a rip-off. With time, though, you once again grow accustomed to paying for exposure. So, in spite of many thinking advertising was dead, it’s actually alive and well—but delivered by a new provider.
Little of this should come as a shock. Although the name of the provider might change, the need to reach an audience remains universal. Facebook is an advertising platform, even if it appears different from ones that came before.
Meanwhile, the company’s strategy was brilliant. By giving away exposure, they likely got you to build your audience on (or migrate it to) their platform. Now, you’re entrenched. My bet is that even if you want to take your brand off Facebook, you’ll think twice. There’s no easy way to take that audience with you. After putting so much into building that following, you’re not going to throw it away too quickly.
To the point, though: the problem for marketers isn’t that Facebook is now a pay-to-play environment. (If you don’t pay, as few as 2% – 6% of your fans will see your post.) Rather, it’s that this platform is so low yield. Whether you’ve run a Like campaign, boosted a post, or run display ads, you likely witnessed the same: the engagement quality of Facebook ads is sometimes bad, and at others outright dubious.
Up to 67% of Facebook likes are suspected to be illegitimate. In 2014, Harvard University’s Facebook page’s most engaged users were located in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Likes often seem to come from phantom accounts in odd locations (e.g., likes for a local restaurant in New Jersey, from Facebook users in Thailand). And I’ve personally run campaigns with many thousands of “engagements”… but corresponding activity that could be counted on one hand.
Most marketers are at very least suspicious about certain social media activity. Few are as ready to talk about it, though. Agencies want remarkable numbers to justify their billings. CMOs want to believe that their marketing efforts are working. Meanwhile, it stands to reason that no one at Facebook wants to get in the way of the company’s profits—even if some metrics might be dubious.
All of this is a mess, because of a blip. For a short while, when the technology was nascent, a few of us got a free ride—and grew accustomed to results that weren’t sustainable. Anyone who’s present for such a blip loves the excitement and rewards of such good timing. A few lucky companies had big wins. Some personal brands exploded overnight. And some social media consultants got (pseudo) famous along the way, by talking about the “death” of advertising.
However, as a medium/platform matures, such expectations become less realistic. Once the opportunity is recognized and documented, everyone wants in on the same good thing. As usage increases, novelty typically wanes and audience interest tends to diminish. Meanwhile, things like click farms and fake users emerge—so everyone can experience a bit of the same “success.”
Fact is, though, some opportunities just don’t last. Now, if you were one of the first brands to use Facebook, you likely benefitted disproportionately from doing so. However, if you were the 10,000th, your gains probably weren’t as remarkable. Building a huge following on Facebook now? That’s a pay-to-play game at best, and one that requires you to keep paying to interact with your audience. (I argue that this makes such an exercise largely foolish.)
Of course, by now Facebook is sort of old news. Today, we have Instagram (owned by Facebook), Snapchat, Periscope, and a number of other social networks in which you can build your brand. The story is mostly the same for all of these, though: marketers know the opportunity these networks present. As such, each of these scenes gets crowded fast. Sure, there will be others. That said, I don’t think you should bank on any of them.
Instead, I encourage you to consider less obvious means of engaging your audience. Remember that the best opportunities in social media came when most people didn’t take it seriously. So, perhaps you need to consider which avenues marketers don’t take seriously now.
I’ll write more about how to do so in future posts. For now, though, I just want to remind you that blips are interesting, but hardly ever predictable or dependable. So, stop wondering why your social media efforts aren’t paying out as you wish they would (because they probably aren’t for anyone). Instead, remind yourself that marketing is a long-haul exercise that has more to do with how you interact with users/customers/fans than your like/follower count.