Facebook and its journey from social network to ad network in less than a year

Chris Buckley: director of digital engagement at TMW
Chris Buckley: director of digital engagement at TMW

It's not celebrating 10 years of Facebook that we should be talking about; it's how Facebook seems to have changed what it is without telling anyone, writes Chris Buckley, director of digital engagement at TMW.

Like many in digital agency land, I've been working with clients to deal with Facebook's decision to change its business model. From a social network that was once about engaging people and earning their attention, to what seems to be an ad network that targets people en masse, Facebook's "pivot" (as its likes to describe it) is big, and it isn’t popular.

Making brands pay-to-play hasn’t been an easy pill for brands or most agencies to swallow. And who can blame either for not liking the move.

After years of being told to build a critical mass on the platform, focus on gaining likes and craft posts, images and videos to gain organic engagement - brands are now being told that it's reach alone (and therefore media spend) that matters.

Media budgets

Facebook’s mentality has always been that it learns quickly, and what it seems to have learned is that media budgets are bigger than social ones. Plus, as budget holders move on, so does the need to explain what all that money on ‘Like ads’ achieved.

From a social network to what seems to be an ad network that targets people en masse, Facebook's 'pivot' is big, and it isn’t popular.

And when it does need to explain, it's learned that pointing to changes in consumer behaviour (turning to mobile, getting bored of ads and ditching apps) is much easier to hear than "we’ve changed our business model".

It has also learned the power of data when unlocking budgets. A little bit of research can go a long way when telling media agencies and brands that theirs is a good place to spend money.

Lastly, it's learned that if you turn the head of a business, the body will follow. Beware the 'we must catch up and talk about your business goals’, and ‘you must meet (impressive name you’ve heard in the press)’ approaches.

Glass ceiling

But here’s my pivot. I've worked in digital marketing for 15 years and watched the industry fail to get through the budget glass ceiling. All that boardroom talk about digital transformation and putting money where people spend time hasn't translated into digital budgets going much higher than 15% of marketing communications spend.

Blame it on fragmentation, a lack of common standards, a lack of TV-like research to show brand value, digital agencies not being good enough, or blame it on clients not 'getting' digital. Wherever you want to put the blame, the truth is that digital is the poor relation to TV and other paid media. Until now.

Facebook has scale. It has consumer interaction, data, the ability to control its environment, the context of use (device, time and location) and for now, it has the ear of brands and media agencies. If ever there was a time when digital could smash through that budget glass ceiling, it's now.

I'm not a fan of Facebook seemingly turning its back on social, or the communities of brand pages, or the digital creative agencies that have helped get it to the size it is. But Facebook has made it to the big league, so it had better do something to make things right.

Facebook has the key to the door that could unlock TV's stranglehold on media budgets, SEO's dominance of digital spend, as well as senior marketers' fear of digital.

But mess that up, and I certainly won’t be there to help blow out the candles for number 11.

Chris Buckley is the director of digital engagement at TMW

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