September 21 2012: The day the social media dream died

September 21 marks the five-year anniversary of the day when Facebook turned social media into just plain ‘media’. This date is probably worth noting, if not necessarily celebrating, as it marks the end of the dream of brands having unlimited conversations with their fans for free.

It was a classic switcheroo. Having convinced brands that they needed to purchase fans and then Likes, Facebook cut off the free access and started to charge brands to speak to the very fans that they had just paid for.

It started when Facebook first allowed businesses to have pages in 2007 and created a wild west for canny marketers. Brands could build their own page by using incentives (Like us and get a free T-shirt!’) to hook in ‘fans’ (or merely the shirtless) who were then reassigned as being ‘brand lovers’. The popular wisdom was that these fans were now happily settled in a community where they could chat forever about their shared favorite subject, say, a toilet cleaner.

It soon turned out that people didn’t have a whole bunch of things to say to each other about toilet cleaners, but this really didn’t matter. The brands had corralled together some unwary consumers who, having expressed a passing interest in the brand, could now be reached by any number of messages, all sent for free.

Although it wasn’t quite free, of course, because somebody was needed to keep the hastily assembled fans in line and stop the malcontents from getting bitchy about the toilet cleaner that had brought them together in the first place. No such skill-set existed, but a bunch of geeks who liked the sound of being paid for being on Facebook all day blinked in the sunlight as they left their darkened bedrooms and became the first ‘social media managers’.

Marketers, being creatures of discipline, were a little distrustful of the laissez-faire norms of social media and instead of the fast response that Facebook encourages were keen that their posts be as tightly controlled as any other of their brand communication. This naturally added another layer of work and meant that production costs, although relatively small, were unavoidably seen as out of proportion to a zero media cost.

This state of affairs existed happily for hundreds of years. Well, hundreds of years in digital terms, in reality, just a couple. Then out of the blue came the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. Facebook decided they’d had enough of providing free media to their friends in brands and pulled what has been called ‘one of the most lucrative grifts of all time’*. Having sucked in companies to invest in building their fan base, Facebook then changed the algorithms so that brands would no longer reach their fan base at will, and the organic reach melted away like teenagers at washing-up time. Facebook didn’t explain, they didn’t apologise, they just turned off the pipe and waited for someone to complain. They didn’t.

Instead of turning on Facebook, the brand owners shot the messenger instead. That they were no longer reaching their consumers for free was generally misattributed as being their agency’s fault. It was taken as a tacit demonstration of how all agencies really wanted to do was make TV ads. As if to confirm their guilt, agencies politely pointed out that they would now need a bunch of media money to reach the same people that they had been reaching before for free. This message was as well received as most agency requests for additional funds required to achieve the same results.

It took two years for Time magazine to notice and in 2014 they ran an article announcing that ‘The Free-Marketing Gravy Train Is Over on Facebook’. A Facebook spokesman came out with the disarmingly frank admission that “if businesses want to make sure that people see their content, the best strategy is, and has always been, paid advertising”. So there we had it. Facebook was not actually about having conversations with consumers it was about putting paid ads in front of them like every other medium. Ever get the feeling you’d been had?

This wasn’t a grand Machiavellian scheme by Facebook. The algorithm was switched in answer to a growing number of teens leaving Facebook because of the preponderance of posts from brands rather than friends. How did the all-knowing Facebook get into this problem in the first place? Well, Chaos Monkeys, the recently released book by Facebook insider Antonio Garcia Martinez, gives an interesting account of what Facebook is like behind the door of the Zuckerberg bunker. The key lesson from the book is that however smart its leaders may be, and however much testing they do, in reality, Facebook knows little more about what will work than the rest of us. Their difference is that the whole company is set up not just to cope with failure, but also to actively court it. The company motto of ‘Move fast and break things’ gives them the freedom to change their mind whenever they feel like it. And if one of those things that they break is the social media dream, then so be it. Facebook is currently valued at US $500 billion.

PS: By coincidence, our digital team has found a way to get close to 100 percent organic reach for brands. We realise that it’s only a matter of time before Facebook swoop in and knock it back again so we’re keeping it under our hats.

*James Del. Gawker.

  • Paul Catmur is the founder and CEO of Barnes, Catmur & Friends Dentsu.

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